illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Contemporary critical discussion of Shakespeare's works has frequently focused on the subject of race, particularly how racial “others” are represented in his dramas. Many commentators have focused on the importance of achieving a clear consideration of how Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries understood the term “race.” Generally, scholars have observed that Shakespeare employed the word “race” in a genealogical sense, referring to noble bloodlines and royal succession. Nevertheless, many contemporary critics have located race as a central site of conflict in several of Shakespeare's works, including Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and Titus Andronicus. To varying degrees, each of these works confronts the tensions between white, Christian Europeans, and cultural outsiders—blacks, Jews, Muslims, and Indians. In examining these conflicts, critics have generally argued that while Shakespeare presents an array of stereotypes, in many cases he succeeds in transcending these limited perceptions and offers a complex, if not always balanced, depiction of racial interaction.

In Othello and The Merchant of Venice, the dark-skinned Othello and Jewish Shylock dominate their respective plays—works pervaded by the drama of racial difference. While racial antagonism drives the plot of these powerful works, other plays approach the subject of race less directly, exploring the clash of cultures as an important motif. Among these works, Titus Andronicus features a significant element of racial discrimination, centered on the figure of Aaron. A black-skinned Moor, Aaron represents, on a superficial level, the Renaissance association of the color black with evil. Several critics, including Edward T. Washington (1995) and Jeannette S. White (1997), assert that Shakespeare's Aaron surmounts this stereotype, particularly in light of his compassionate love for his child. An ambiguous character, according to Washington, Aaron offers an evil exterior that masks his deeply hidden virtues.

Modern critics have also found the link between race and gender particularly intriguing in several of Shakespeare's plays. Lorie Jerrell Leininger (1980) observes the analogy between Prospero's oppression of his daughter Miranda and of his racially distinct slave Caliban in The Tempest. Leininger discusses Caliban's qualities as a lascivious Vice-figure who stands in contrast to Miranda and her inherent virtue. Kim F. Hall (1995) further explores the concept of a sexualized threat posed by a racial “other,” discussing Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda and the danger to Roman imperial culture intimated by the sexually potent African queen Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. Joyce Green MacDonald (1996) follows a similar line of inquiry by probing the symbolic import of a highly sexualized, black-skinned Cleopatra as an emblem of corruption and lustful desire.

Twentieth-century study of cultural imperialism has also proved a useful point of departure for the interpretation of Shakespeare's late drama, The Tempest, which has elicited a number of racially-inspired, anticolonial readings. Rob Nixon (1987) surveys the play's appropriation by African and Caribbean intellectuals of the postcolonial period, who have found in the racially-charged relationship between Prospero and Caliban a strong condemnation of European imperialism. This critical exploration is furthered by Jyotsna G. Singh (1996), who examines Caliban's recasting by modern proponents of decolonization as a cultural prototype of the oppressed New World revolutionary. Richard Takaki (1992) analyzes Caliban's connection to American history in the early age of English colonial expansion, associating Shakespeare's depiction of Caliban with Renaissance reports of “savages” in the Americas. Furthermore, Barbara Fuchs (1997) expands colonial interpretations of The Tempest to view in historical context the racial threats perceived by English imperialists in Ireland and the Islamic regions of the southern and eastern Mediterranean.

Edward T. Washington (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Tragic Resolution in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, June, 1995, pp. 461-79.

[ In the following essay, Washington argues...

(This entire section contains 6173 words.)

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that the figure of Aaron transcends the Renaissance representation of blacks “as stereotypical dramatic emblems of evil.”]

At the end of a tragedy the waters close over the wreck-age of the tragic figures. Those who remain pay tribute to the fallen, inviting the sense that life shall move on, the community having learned something useful from the sad events. Most critics assert that in Titus Andronicus, the new alliance between the Andronici and the Goths, with Lucius in the lead and Lucius Jr. in the wings, represents the solution to Rome's dilemmas, the renewed life after tragic events.1 But despite Lucius' alliance and coronation at the end, it is black Aaron and his child who signal new hope for this tragic world, thereby undermining the play's representation of blacks as stereotypical dramatic emblems of evil.2


Aaron's role as a barbarous black infidel is rendered ambiguous by his relative merits and by subtly subversive patterns of dramatic action in the text. Thus in a tragedy of blood that presents fourteen on-stage murders, we see only one slaying carried out by Aaron, the play's so-called arch-“fiend.”3 More significantly, while Roman and Gothic characters wage acts of cruel revenge that beget more killings, Aaron's single murder of the nurse4 actually saves a life, that of his newborn son. In this latter scenario Aaron must also prevent the child's mother, Tamora, and half-brothers, Demetrius and Chiron, from murdering their own flesh and blood: his success in doing so saves (temporarily) his Gothic step-family from falling prey to the self-destructive family in-fighting that erodes Rome's political stability.5 Aaron not only preserves life, but he is also the only figure (except the black child and perhaps the midwife) to be threatened with death and not die. The Moor's ability to survive adverse situations provides some reason to suspect that his proposed execution at the end of the drama will progress no further than the attempt to hang him earlier on (V.i.47-48). In short, despite his instigations, his violent acts, and his confessions of wrongdoing, Aaron's role is aligned with patterns of family unity and survival that oppose the society's (and the play's) downward spiral toward dissolution and death.

Aaron's movement toward life is affirmed by food and devouring motifs. Rome is portrayed as a ravenous tiger, a famished “blood-drinking pit” (II.iii.224) that consumes all in its path. In this regard, we can hardly dismiss Titus' two banquet feasts, Aaron's reference to a survival diet as he flees with his son, and the Moor's final death sentence by means of starvation. Titus' first banquet is a light repast that aims to fit the Andronici for a long but ultimately victorious battle against their enemies, as Titus says: “So, so; not sit; and look you eat no more / Than will preserve just so much strength in us / As will revenge these bitter woes of ours” (III.ii.1-3). That Aaron also decides to eat sparsely during the course of his escape with his son suggests that lean feeding (in opposition to the voraciousness motif) is a metaphor for victory and survival in the play, as Aaron soliloquizes to the child: “I’ll make you feed on berries and on roots, / And feed on curds and whey, and suck the goat, / And cabin in a cave, and bring you up / To be a warrior, and command a camp” (IV.ii.178-81). The link between plain fare and salvation is strengthened insofar as Titus' second banquet involves a hideously rich dinner of human heads that signals the continuation of revenge mayhem. Although this banquet sets the stage for the drama's most gruesome carnage, Aaron is not a guest at this final, bloody feast. Rather it is his lot to be partly buried in (i.e., only half-swallowed by) the earth, thereupon to die of starvation. Yet, too coincidentally, Aaron's execution by starvation parallels the leanness motif which also describes the play's movement toward survival. Given that Aaron's demi-burial allows his persuasive tongue to flourish, and given his earlier reprieve from hanging, we wonder if the Moor, in slimmer shape, might not wriggle his way out of even this seemingly final death sentence. That is, the theme of reduced appetite as a means to salvation suggests “new life” for Aaron at the end of the play.

Aaron's impulse toward life is further corroborated by language and action which define children as prisoners. Titus calls the tomb where his dead sons lie a “cell of virtue” (I.i.93) and an “earthy prison” (I.i.99). Not surprisingly, he treats his living children like prisoners or even slaves: Titus wills his daughter, Lavinia, to Saturninus at the same time that he bequeathes to the new emperor his sword, his chariot, and his Gothic prisoners (I.i.243-52); he disowns his sons for challenging his parental authority (I.i.294); Saturninus refers to Lavinia as one of Titus' “stock” (I.i.300). Hence in a further instance of unhealthy family relationships among the Romans, we find children in the role of captives. Aaron, on the other hand, sees his child as an important family member who deserves freedom, for he comments to Demetrius and Chiron:

He is your brother, lords, sensibly fed
Of that self blood that first gave life to you;
And from that womb where you imprisoned were
He is enfranchised and come to light.


After refashioning his son's identity into that of a freedman, Aaron rebuts Tamora's directive to slay the child: “Tell the empress from me, I am of age / To keep mine own, excuse it how she can” (IV.ii.103-04). Being a mature adult and no child/prisoner, Aaron asserts that he is no captive, that he has freedom to nurture his son's life, not send it to an early grave (as is the practice in Rome). Aaron's final speech then gathers together the thematic threads that join him and the black child to the idea of salvation: “I am no baby, I, that with base prayers / I should repent the evils I have done” (V.iii.185-86). In these lines (which have little meaning outside the present context) Aaron declares to the Romans that he is no baby, no child that to them is a prisoner. It is Aaron's gritty claim of freedom and life for himself, not confinement and death. Moreover, if his statement is correct that babies are inherently capable of repentance (and since the only baby on stage is his), then should Aaron perish, the child's ability to repent could nevertheless lead to salvation. No comparable sense of survival and religious redemption, in form or content, occurs among the Romans as it does with Aaron and the black child. This seems to point to the blacks in this play as real or potential representatives of renewed life in a declining Rome.6


It is remarkable that in the midst of this Roman death chamber there is a birth, an event uncommon in Shakespeare and one much less suitable for tragedy than for comedy or romance. Aaron is the father and the only character willing to defend the infant's life in a society that slaughters its own children:7 “[The child] shall not live,” says Chiron, and Aaron replies, “He shall not die” (IV.ii.80-81). The normative critical response to the black child is that he is a reincarnated synthesis of two devils, Tamora and Aaron.8 Yet in a play where the only things “hatched” are evil plots that lead to death, this child comes to life, and it is suggested that it will thrive. While some argue that the black child merely emblematizes the magnitude of tragic evil in Rome,9 it should be noted that those in the play who would kill the child are villains who themselves succumb (save Lucius, who must be coerced into preserving life). That is, the callousness of the infant's would-be murderers encourages us to view the child as a positive entity, not only in the light of his survival but also in terms of his moral value.

Specifically, the black child is the only innocent character in the play, one who seeks no revenge and plots no murder: even the problem comedy pregnancies in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are more ominous in their bourgeois contexts of sexual decorum than is Aaron's living child in this Roman wasteland. It might also be noted that the child's retreat from a dangerous Rome through the countryside toward salvation—and Aaron's statement that his son would be great someday—is a dramatic pattern that echoes the journey of the infant Moses out of Pharoah's hands.10 This pattern also resembles the story of Romulus and Remus, whose trials led to the founding of Rome. Additionally, the child's emergence from a ruinous monastery wall suggests (with the extenuation of his life) a phoenix rising from the ashes. Each of these accounts involves a difficult sojourn through nature, the result of which is new, or improved, or extended life.

Further support for the view that the black child symbolizes salvation ensues from a few lines spoken by Aaron late in the play. After explaining to Demetrius and Chiron that they must accept a markedly new plan of action if they expect to survive the birth of the child, he whispers to his son: “Come on, you thick-lipp’d slave, I’ll bear you hence; / For it is you that puts us to our shifts” (IV.ii.176-77). A motif exists in the play which reveals that the closer the Romans come to seeing the truth about their plight, the more radical become the shifting sands of character behavior and plot. (Similarly, as action and character behavior become more extreme, the closer the Romans come to seeing the truth.) For example, Saturninus' heightened anxiety exposes his incompetence and prompts the citizenry to shift their support from him to Lucius and the alien Goths. When Titus loses his wits, Tamora and the boys respond to his extremes by disguising themselves, in truth, as the villains they are; this is turn leads to recognition by Titus and to the extremely shocking and bloody end. Lastly, the blackness of the newborn child reveals the truth of Aaron and Tamora's relationship, which impels the Moor to shift from Rome. Aaron's subsequent capture results in a full confession of all the previously hidden truths. The real tragedy of this play, however, is that despite the gradual emergence of truth, no one has the wherewithal to use the facts to halt the revenge: Tamora's mania for retribution causes her to underestimate the truth in her choice of allegorical disguises; Titus and the Romans see the truth but continue to wreak havoc. Conversely, in light of the unending chaos in Rome, Aaron's departure (the shift brought on by the advent of the child) denotes foresight and an impulse toward life as the black character abandons a noxious environment to make a new start in a land more replete in healthy family support and friends. (Lucius also leaves Rome but returns to continue the revenge.) Just as Aaron attempts to jettison the revenge cycle, to gain life by leaving Rome, it appears that the black child is capable of breaking free as well—as Demetrius' singular rejection of Lavinia's plea for mercy confirms: “What, would'st thou have me prove myself a bastard?” (II.iii.148). As the play's acknowledged bastard, the black child, unlike Demetrius, appears to possess the potential for mercy that could break the chain of endless retribution in Rome.

As noted above, critics of Titus Andronicus tend to dismiss the idea that the blacks in this play represent anything other than evil and death, due mainly to the new configuration of Andronici and Goth that heralds a new society at the end.11 Yet many doubts exist as to whether this new configuration entails a substantive change from the past. My argument is that it does not. To support this assertion we may begin by noting that Lucius, the new emperor, helped to initiate the feuding in this play by sacrificing Tamora's son Alarbus; and like other Romans he never realizes the degree to which vengeance and lack of mercy contribute to Rome's sorrows. Lucius never confesses, never repents, and it is stated that he is a soldier who perhaps rapes when he pillages (IV.i.107-11). Additionally, Lucius has problems communicating (which brings into question his leadership capabilities); he is inconsistent (e.g., his desertion to the Goths); and ultimately, he continues the revenge cycle with the sentences he imposes on Tamora and Aaron. Lucius does agree to nourish the black infant—yet he could be nursing his own demise should the child develop the leadership qualities hoped for by Aaron. The Goths agree to join forces with Lucius, but this alliance results from their belief that Tamora and Aaron had defected to the Romans (V.i.16), which they had not. The revelation of this truth could render the Goths a Trojan horse rather than a loyal ally to Rome. When we look beyond the elder to the youngest Lucius, the prospects for change do not improve. Clearly, little Lucius, named for his father, signals no change; this stasis is affirmed by the boy's vow to follow his father's violent ways, even as his grandfather Titus teaches him to revenge (IV.i.106-19). Then, too, there is the boy's heartfelt and noble desire to take Titus' place in the tomb. Despite genuine grief, however, young Lucius' sacrificial impulse only accentuates the misdirected death-oriented nature of the Roman society. In short, when Rome's future leader is hinted to be a violent, vengeful, death-desiring character (who, like his father, would storm a mother's bed-chamber to redress a wrong [IV.i.112]), the prospects for change in a declining Rome seem bleak.

Beyond the questions raised concerning weaknesses in the new Roman leadership, another issue which casts suspicion on the conventional tragic renewal concerns the functionary role of women. Of Titus' twenty-eight children and grandchildren, Lavinia is his only female descendant, and she dies without issue. Marcus is without wife as is Lucius. Tamora, the only woman to give birth (in a play filled with swollen tombs that resemble swelling wombs [II.iii.239-40]), dies. From a dramatic standpoint Rome's future lacks the female element necessary for regeneration. Ironically, the only other mention of a woman in Titus Andronicus is the wife of Muly, Aaron's black countryman, who has a child (possibly a daughter) about the same age as Aaron's son. (The female nurse and midwife are more or less placental beings who would suffocate a newborn life unless they are cut away.) What this census suggests is that Rome, unchanged by new leadership, moves toward sterility and death while the promise of life and the future lie with Aaron and/or his son, and/or his countrymen. As such, we can hardly dismiss these black figures as simplistic conventional emblems of evil that are subsumed in the end by a superior Roman (or Gothic) race.


References to darkness and blackness in this play adhere by and large to expected negative values: coffins are draped in black, criminal acts of “black night” (V.i.64) occur in “shaded” (II.iii.16) woods, illicit love is “raven-colored” (II.iii.183), and a “black fly” (III.ii.66-67) symbolizes evil. Dark images are also used to foreshadow the entrance of the “devil” (V.i.40) Aaron, to denote the perniciousness of Aaron's words and deeds and to describe Aaron's (or his child's) Moorish being. These uncomplimentary views of blackness are expressed primarily by white characters, but even Aaron seems to speak of blackness in pejorative terms: “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace, / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (III.i.204-05). Despite the text's espoused loathing of blackness (and corresponding embrace of whiteness), patterns exist in the language, action, and themes of Titus Andronicus that challenge the neatness of this conventional literary dichotomy, particularly with respect to Aaron's role as a conventional racial emblem of evil.

As alluded to earlier, one hedge against this hierarchical color dichotomy is the imputation of evil to the play's white characters.12 These imputations suggest that whites are deficient in certain capabilities, attitudes, and moral virtues which the black characters in fact possess. The play uses inversion to foreground these uncomplimentary views of whiteness. For instance, Lavinia's temperament, virtue, and beauty define her as “Rome's rich ornament” (I.i.52), yet peevish and sensual sides to her personality (II.iii.66-70; 80-84) undermine her role as the city's “spotless” (V.ii.176) princess. Equally incongruous is the ritualistic dressing of the new emperor in the “pure white robe” (I.i.183) of election, for we discover rather quickly that Rome's leaders are enmired in political fractiousness, excessive religious zeal, and homicide. Thus it is no accident that Titus not only rejects the pure white robe of office early on, but also, in the end, arrays himself in the blood-daubed whites of a demented cook—a hideous translation of the white gown of leadership that was to signify his unsullied worthiness.

Another vagary in the conventional dichotomy of black and white involves the ways in which Aaron qualifies the standard meanings of the color emblems. While Aaron occasionally employs negative epithets of darkness, he never implies that such usage denotes inherent deficiencies in racial blacks. Aaron's reference to his son as a “tawny slave” (V.i.27) is an affectionate description since he obviously sets great store by the child. Similarly, when he alludes to criminal behavior that is as “black” as his face, or when he likens his own imperviousness to guilt to that of a “black dog (as the saying is)” (V.i.122), these similes of comparison (as the parenthetical comment denotes) simply acknowledge his skin to be the same color as the hue conventionally associated with depravity and evil. Conversely, the whites (including Tamora and her boys) see racial blackness literally as a metaphor for naturalistic evil. Aaron therefore is a “foul fiend” and a portent of evil “that comes in the night in the likeness of a coal-black Moor” (III.ii.78). A semantic confrontation between these divergent figures of blackness occurs when Lucius captures Aaron and must decide how to punish him. Having already asserted that Aaron's color defines his moral character (Lucius calls Aaron “the incarnate devil” and his child the “growing image of Aaron's fiend-like face” who is “too like the sire for ever being good” [V.i.40,45,50]), Lucius says: “Bring down the devil, for he must not die … presently” (V.i.145-46). But Aaron's response (especially given the cogency of his earlier remarks concerning idolotry and hypocrisy in Roman religious practices [V.i.73-85]) clearly provides a more rational assessment of the relationship between race and deviltry: “If there be devils, would I were a devil, / To live and burn in everlasting fire, / So I might have your company in hell” (V.i.147-49). According to Aaron, if deviltry exists, it harbors no racial preferences; and since evil exists among the whites in Rome, Aaron's statement disposes of Lucius' inference that deviltry is determined by racial blackness.

When the conventional values of black and white (i.e., evil and good) in the play are qualified, undercut, or overturned, they signal themes of misperception, poor comprehension, or religious hypocrisy—problems that constitute stumbling blocks to civility and order in Rome. Hence Romam (and Gothic) assumptions about Aaron's moral turpitude (and about the sinfulness of a child who has committed no evil) allow the white characters to dismiss qualities in the Moor that could otherwise be useful to them. Aaron's critique of Roman religious mores could help Lucius to comprehend the problems that stem from his murder of Alarbus, but Lucius hears only the ravings of a pagan fiend. Aaron's commitment to family unity and political alliance contrasts with Rome's factionalism, yet both Romans and Goths would continue to murder their own—in the case of Tamora and her boys, because their own is black. Aaron's enduring sexual relationship with Tamora is seen as despicable due largely to the Moor's blackness, but this racial dodge allows Demetrius and Chiron to gloss their own beastly sexual appetites and their rape of Lavinia. Then, too, Titus' glint of perception concerning family unity, mercy, and wise leadership is dashed by Marcus' scapegoating of Aaron via the witless metaphor of a black fly (III.ii.52-72). These misperceptions do not prove that Aaron is benign or wholly innocent; rather they show how conventional white racism (or conventional literary antiblackness) in Titus Andronicus reflects the restrictive (and hence destructive) vision of this Roman society. When Marcus labels Aaron the “chief architect and plotter of these woes” (V.iii.122), we know better that Rome's problems have their deepest roots in the psyches of the Roman leaders and in the fabric of the society as Shakespeare re-presents it dramatically. Consequently we have little reason to believe that the removal of Aaron and his child from the community will bring an end to Rome's sorrows.


Having suggested several ways in which Titus Andronicus allows us to see redeeming qualities in its otherwise evil black characters, the larger question becomes: Is there a significant dramatic point to be made concerning the unanticipated virtues in Aaron and his child? To answer this question, we might first note that blackness or darkness constitutes one pole of a pair of antithetical entities which vies with its opposite for ascendency in the play. In addition to black and white, other prominent polarities include Roman and Goth, high and low, speech and silence, word and deed, reason and madness, love and hate, life and death. Shakespeare uses racial differences to highlight the theme of polarized conflict, and Aaron's blackness represents the evil that opposes Rome's “pure white” valor, piety, and nobility. Regardless of the degree to which this morality struggle holds true, a further dynamic is at work between opposing dramatic forces which illuminates a more complex meaning for blackness in Titus Andronicus.

In a recent essay on blackness in selected early modern texts, Joyce MacDonald argues that the polarized racial codes in Titus Andronicus remain rigidly dichotomized throughout the play: “The racialist discourse out of which Shakespeare shaped [Aaron] posits an absolute gap between the racial selves it denominated as ‘black’ and ‘white’”13 I would argue, however, that while black and white racial images contend with each other throughout the play, there are times when this struggle abates to reveal a subtle, reconciling intermingling of antithetical poles—thereby bridging the “absolute gap” between black and white postulated by MacDonald. In Act IV, for example, Titus has seemingly lost both his power and his wits as he futilely endeavors to send complaint letters to the gods. As Marcus observes to his son: ‘O Publius, is not this a heavy case, / To see thy noble uncle thus distract?” (IV.iii.24-25). Realizing that Titus has reached a dangerously low point, Publius (i.e., the public? the society?) suggests a plan of action to cure Titus, one which brings dark and light images together with sensitivity and compassion:

Therefore, my lords, it highly us concerns
By day and night t’attend him carefully,
And feed his humour kindly as we may,
Till time beget some careful remedy.


Publius' remedy seems sound enough; however, as with the black fly incident, Marcus again blocks Titus' way to compassion and sanity when he proclaims Andronicus' miseries to be “past remedy” (IV.iii.31). Yet despite Marcus' dismissal of Publius' therapy, we find the “day and night” image of cure reinvoked at that critical point in the action when Titus realizes the truth about his misfortunes as he proclaims to Tamora when she appears as Revenge:

I am not mad; I know thee well enough:
Witness this wretched stump, witness these
          crimson lines;
Witness these trenches made by grief and care;
Witness the tiring day and heavy night:
Witness all sorrow that I know thee well
For our proud empress, mighty Tamora.

(V ii 21-26)

Here again the enjoinment of antithetical images of day and night, of light and dark, signal genuine progress toward sanity as Titus begins to recognize the immediate cause of his sorrows. As his perception of the truth improves (V.i.1-100), correspondingly the play's dialogue acquires several pairs of mingled opposites (e.g., right and wrong, talk and action, enemy and friend, day and night, etc.) that seem to clarion Titus' (and the play's) climactic moment of sight, truth, and remedy, as Titus observes insightfully to the disguised Tamora:

In the emperor's court
There is a queen attended by a Moor;
Well shalt thou know her by thine own proportion,
For up and down she doth resemble thee.


The black and white images in Titus Andronicus are just one of several binary sets that must move from a state of destructive conflict to harmonious reconciliation (or dialectical equilibrium) if Rome is to free itself from the cycle of revenge. The “day and night” as remedy motif suggests that while antithetical opposition is a given in the play, the society's leaders must redirect this conflict toward conciliatory solutions or suffer the ongoing consequences of dissension, violence, madness, and death. Because Titus does not fully comprehend how the adumbration of polar conflict can lead to peace in Rome, he continues to seek revenge. Thus as Titus prepares to execute Demetrius and Chiron for their rape of Lavinia, he also deconstructs the salubrious blend of conflictual signifiers that seemed to offer remedy earlier:

Here stands the spring whom you have stain’d with mud,
This goodly summer with your winter mix’d:
.....Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,
.....And make two pasties of your shameful heads.

(V.ii.169-70; 186; 189)

If harmonious opposites become brutally antagonistic when Titus resumes revenge, we might wonder too about Lucius' ostensibly curative alliance with the Goths. That is, despite Lucius' treaty with his former enemy, he too continues to carry out revenge with his murder of Saturninus, his sentencing of Aaron to a torturous death, and his decision to deny Tamora a civilized burial—a decision “devoid of pity” (V.i.199), not unlike the one which led him to murder, mutilate, and burn Alarbus at the start of the play.

Aaron, on the other hand, does surprisingly well at joining opposites. It is he who beats back the antagonistic white view that the infant should die because of its heterogeneous racial origins. He also intimates that blacks are more open to such mixing: that is, Aaron's (black) countryman, Muly, and his “fair” (IV.ii.155) wife have a child who (unlike Tamora and Aaron's dark child) resembles his light-complexioned mother. Clearly the Moorish culture is more accustomed to mingling varied opposites and more accepting of the diverse products of mixed extremes. The Moors are also more keenly aware of the folly that ensues from myopic presumptions concerning the worth of combined opposites, as is evidenced when Aaron is overheard to comment to his child:

Peace, tawny slave, half me and half thy dame!
Did not thy hue bewray whose brat thou art?
Had nature lent thee but thy mother's look,
Villain, thou might'st have been an emperor.


I would argue that no other character in the play exhibits as much concern for and insight into the nature of antithetical opposition (of any sort) as Aaron. His common-sense views on mixing and his defense of his biracial child encourage us to align his tolerance of enjoined opposites with Publius' day-and-night remedy for madness. If Publius is right in contending that a compassionate synthesis of light and dark brings forth cure, then with Aaron's compassion, the child of mixed racial origins may in fact represent a remedy for Rome rather than its endless woes.


As active as opposing characters, themes, and images are in Titus Andronicus, attracting and repulsing one another, their conflict is subsumed by an overriding truth that defines unabated conflict as destructive to civilized life. A civilized existence in Rome depends upon the recognition of relatedness even amidst a sea of potentially destructive difference. One way in which the play accentuates relatedness in spite of difference is through the idea of family. Mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, sons, daughters, fathers, grandfathers, and stepfathers abound here; primogeniture is an emotional issue for parents and has particular import with regard to who will lead the state; marriages (and sexual relationships outside of marriage) create new family ties. Titus is called “father of my life” (I.i.253) by Saturninus; Lavinia asserts that Titus “gave … life” (II.iii.159) to Tamora when he pardoned her; Bassianus calls Titus the “father” (I.i.423) of Rome; and a peripheral messenger likens his sorrows for Titus to the sadness which he felt at the death of his own father (III.i.240). I would offer also that the competition for who will belong to whom (whether by virtue of war, desire, sexual relations, or marriage) creates a strong sense of relatedness that binds all members of the society together as a family. Even the culminating pact between the Romans and the Goths seems to echo the sudden and unlikely nuptials of Saturninus and Tamora. In addition to real and suggested familial bonds between and among the characters, the drama emphasizes commonality in its use of mirror plots: Tamora pleads for her son, and Titus pleads for his sons; Demetrius and Chiron argue over Lavinia as do Saturninus and Bassianus; both Aaron and Lucius have young sons; the clown is cut off when he petitions the court for the safe delivery of a family member; and Titus is similarly cut off from his sons by Saturninus. Along with the construed family ties, these mirror-like patterns seem to draw the characters together into a unified community that counterposes the dominance of polar conflict in the play.

Yet if it seems likely that familial and social unity provide solutions to Rome's giddy madness, then it is the Romans (or more generally the whites) who seem least equipped to see and act upon this truth. It is the whites who carry out all except one of the slayings, who demonstrate too little concern for the first-born sons of others, and who kill or seek to kill their own flesh and blood (as well as those who are different from themselves). Even when the white characters succeed in merging opposites, the harmony of the resulting union is suspect. Titus is able to mingle antithetical word-images of day and night, but he continues to seek revenge; Lucius joins with the Goths, but the alliance rests upon their mutual desire to “be aveng’d” (V.i.16); Saturninus mixes with Tamora but only for selfish and lascivious reasons, which highlight his character flaws and his weaknesses as a leader of Rome. Tamora has the ability to “gloze with all” (IV.iv.35), yet her fair words are deceitfully foul and destructive. Hence Tamora claims to have affection for Aaron, but her rejection of the black child exposes her deeper hatred of blackness and her disdain for new life. In the end, her unyielding appetite for revenge destroys her marriage to the Roman Saturninus and ultimately brings death to herself and her boys. In short, the forms of unity established by the play's white characters are unstable due to misperception, lack of foresight, immorality, racism, and the unwillingness to halt the revenge.

Despite the wrongs that Aaron has committed or engineered, the mixing he carries out constitutes the play's only substantive alliances between mighty opposites. Aaron engenders new life in a dying Rome through mixing, and then he preserves that life by orchestrating a double-mix between his biracial Gothic child and the white Roman society. While he makes little pretense of using fair words, in the end his foul words lead obversely to a fair end for his child in Rome. Most of Aaron's achievements derive from his witty ability to adapt to new and often dangerous situations with peoples and values that are antithetical to his presumedly static spheres of racial otherness: blackness, deviltry, beastliness, prurience, and treachery. With his good qualities, however, Aaron becomes, paradoxically, the character most fit to symbolize, if not actually to bring forth, the “day and night” solutions to a revenge-bound Rome; the one character sure to remain upright amidst the shifting sands of a declining empire; the character who does the most to get and preserve life in a place where death seems omnipresent.

The view that Aaron, despite his vices, is much more than a conventional black stereotype gains support from the Roman world that we find depicted in the play. Titus' Rome is not a glorious and wondrous antique city, but rather a “wilderness of tigers” (III.i.54), whose most prominent settings include the palaces of weak kings, the gloomy area around a family tomb, woods filled with more pits and plots than trees, ruined monasteries, and ruined family houses. In short, this Rome is an inverted green world that is more a wasteland of myopia, fractiousness, and death than a great civilization. If the values which made Rome great are turned upside down in this play, it is possible that Shakespeare's Aaron reflects and extends these inverted values by playing the part of a seemingly evil blackness that nevertheless harbors the seeds of hope in a dying Rome.


  1. See, for example, Karen Cunningham, “‘Scars Can Witness’: Trials by Ordeal and Lavinia's Body in Titus Andronicus,Women and Violence in Literature, ed. Katherine Anne Ackley (New York: Garland, 1990) 154; William Slights, “Sacrificial Crisis in Titus Andronicus,University of Toronto Quarterly 49 (1979-80): 30; and Albert Tricomi, “The Mutilated Garden in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 103. For a counterview see Dorothea Kehler, “Titus Andronicus: From Limbo to Bliss,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch 128 (1992): 131.

  2. C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler refer to Aaron as “the villainous root of all evil.” (“Titus Andronicus: The Abortive Domestic Tragedy,” The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development [Berkeley: U of California P, 1986] 131); Eugene Waith deems Aaron (and by extension, his baby) “embodiment(s) of evil, [their] blackness readily seen as emblematic” (in his introduction to the new Oxford Shakespeare edition of Titus Andronicus [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984] 64); Alan Summers calls Aaron “the contriver and symbol of nightmare disintegration and revolting barbarism” (“Wilderness of Tigers,” Essays in Criticism 10 [1960]: 283).

  3. William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, ed. J. C. Maxwell, Arden edition, (London: Methuen, 1953) V.i.45. Subsequent references will appear in the text.

  4. Aaron threatens the life of the midwife, but we never see the act carried out and never hear that it has occurred.

  5. In Act I, before Aaron speaks a word, we see many examples of family and political bickering among the Romans. Saturninus and Bassianus contend for the throne and for Lavinia's hand in marriage; Titus argues with his family over Lavinia's right to marry Bassianus; Titus slays his son Mutius; Titus and Saturninus argue variously over the proper respect due to an eldest son, an emperor, and a valiant warrior of Rome.

  6. The time period to which the play belongs is the 4th century, A.D., during the waning years of the Empire. The turmoil, social dysfunction, and bleak outlook represented in the drama are generally considered to be Shakespeare's view of the Roman Empire in decline. See Robert Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983) 60-64, and Robert Broude, “Roman and Goth in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970): 27-30.

  7. The Andronici execute Tamora's son, Alarbus; Titus kills his daughter Lavinia as well as his son Mutius; Tamora would have her own newborn baby slain.

  8. In addition to Barber/Wheeler and Waith, cited above, see also Tricomi 94-97.

  9. Charles Forker asserts that “[Aaron's] bastard child suggests the perpetuity of evil in the ecology of the tragedy” (“The Green Underworld of Early Shakespearean Tragedy,” Shakespeare Studies 17 [1985]: 38). Joseph E. Kramer argues similarly that “the black baby is the visual embodiment of the past evil and the living embodiment of the prime malefactors” (“Titus Andronicus: The Fly-Killing Incident,” Shakespeare Studies 5 [1969]: 16).

  10. That Moses was the brother of the Old Testament figure Aaron gives further credence to this analogy.

  11. In addition to Cunningham, Slights, and Tricomi, cited above, Bernard Spivak goes so far as to suggest that Aaron's role as a hybrid vice figure predisposes him to villainy that aims to destroy social harmony: “[Aaron] pours the sweet milk of concord into hell, his achievement this way being standard for the role of the Vice in any morality with political or social implications” (Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil [New York: Columbia UP, 1958] 383).

  12. The convention of the “white devil” in Renaissance drama indicates that black/white color symbolism could be manipulated to alter the circumscribed values that typically attended this moralized color dichotomy.

  13. Joyce MacDonald, “‘The Force of Imagination’: The Subject of Blackness in Shakespeare, Jonson, and Ravenscroft,” Renaissance Papers 1991: 74.

Lorie Jerrell Leininger (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare's Tempest,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 285-94.

[In the following essay, Leininger discusses the oppression of women and non-whites—personified in the characters of Miranda and Caliban, respectively—in The Tempest.]

Shakespeare's Tempest was first performed before King James I at Whitehall in November of 1611. It was presented a second time at the court of King James early in 1613, as part of the marriage festivities of James's daughter Elizabeth, who, at the age of sixteen, was being married to Frederick the Elector Palatine. The marriage masque within The Tempest may have been added for this occasion. In any case, the Goddess Ceres' promise of a life untouched by winter (“Spring come to you at the farthest / In the very end of harvest!” IV.i.114-15)1 and all the riches the earth can provide (“Earth's increase, foison plenty”) was offered to the living royal couple as well as to Ferdinand and Miranda.

Elizabeth had fallen dutifully in love with the bridegroom her father had chosen for her, the youthful ruler of the rich and fertile Rhineland and the leading Protestant prince of central Europe. Within seven years Frederick was to become “Frederick the Winter King” and “The Luckless Elector,” but in 1613 he was still the living counterpart of Ferdinand in The Tempest, even as Elizabeth was the counterpart of Miranda. Like Miranda, Elizabeth was beautiful, loving, chaste, and obedient. She believed her father to be incapable of error, in this sharing James's opinion of himself. Miranda in the play is “admired Miranda,” “perfect,” “peerless,” one who “outstrips all praise”; Elizabeth was praised as “the eclipse and glory of her kind,” a rose among violets.2

What was the remainder of her life to be like? Elizabeth, this flesh-and-blood Miranda, might have found it difficult to agree that “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (IV.i.156-58). The future held thirteen children for her, and forty years as a landless exile. Her beloved Frederick died of the plague at the age of thirty-six, a plague spreading through battle camps and besieged cities in a Europe devastated by a war which appeared endless—the Thirty Years War, in which whole armies in transit disappeared through starvation and pestilence. The immediate cause of this disastrous war had been Frederick and Elizabeth's foolhardy acceptance of the disputed throne of Bohemia. Politically inept, committed to a belief in hierarchical order and Neoplatonic courtliness, the new king and queen failed to engage the loyalty of the Bohemians or to prepare adequately for the inevitable attack by the previously deposed king.

While the happiness of the young lovers in The Tempest depended upon their obedience to Miranda's father, the repeated political and military failures of Elizabeth and Frederick were exacerbated by their dependence upon the shifting promises of King James. Elizabeth experienced further tragedy when two of her sons drowned, the eldest at the age of fifteen in an accident connected with spoils from the New World, the fourth son in a tempest while privateering in the New World. There was no Prospero-figure to restore them to life magically.

The Princess Elizabeth, watching The Tempest in 1613, was incapable of responding to clues which might have warned her that being Miranda might prove no unmixed blessing: that even though Miranda occupies a place next to Prospero in the play's hierarchy and appears to enjoy all of the benefits which Caliban, at the base of that hierarchy, is denied, she herself might prove a victim of the play's hierarchical values. Elizabeth would be justified in seeing Miranda as the royal offspring of a ducal father, as incomparably beautiful (her external beauty mirroring her inward virtue, in keeping with Neoplatonic idealism), as lovingly educated and gratefully responsive to that education, as chaste (her chastity symbolic of all human virtue), obedient and, by the end of the play, rewarded with an ideal husband and the inheritance of two dukedoms. Caliban, at the opposite pole, is presented as the reviled offspring of a witch and the Devil, as physically ugly (his ugly exterior mirroring his depraved inner nature), as racially vile, intrinsically uneducable, uncontrollably lustful (a symbol of all vice), rebellious, and, being defined as a slave by nature, as justly enslaved.

Modern readers have become more attentive than Elizabeth could have been in 1613 to clues such as Prospero's address to Miranda, “What! I say, / My foot my tutor?” (I.ii.471-72). The crucial line is spoken near the end of the scene which begins with Prospero's and Ariel's delighted revelation that the tempest was raised through Prospero's magic powers and then continues with the demonstration of Prospero's ability to subjugate the spirit Ariel, the native Caliban, and finally the mourning Prince Ferdinand to his will. Miranda's concern is engaged when Prospero accuses Ferdinand of being a spy, a traitor and usurper; Prospero threatens to manacle Ferdinand's head and feet together and to force him to drink salt water. When Ferdinand raises his sword to resist Prospero's threats, Prospero magically deprives him of all strength. Miranda, alarmed, cries,

O dear father,
Make not too rash a trial of him, for
He’s gentle, and not fearful.


Prospero's response is,

What! I say,
My foot my tutor?


Miranda is given to understand that she is the foot in the family organization of which Prospero is the head. Hers not to reason why, hers but to follow directions: indeed, what kind of a body would one have (Prospero, or the play, asks) if one's foot could think for itself, could go wherever it pleased, independent of the head?

Now it is true that Prospero is acting out a role which he knows to be unjust, in order to cement the young couple's love by placing obstacles in their way. Miranda, however, has no way of knowing this. Prospero has established the principle that stands whether a father's action be just or unjust: the daughter must submit to his demand for absolute unthinking obedience.

But might not being a “foot” to another's “head” prove advantageous, provided that the “head” is an all-powerful godlike father who educates and protects his beloved daughter? Some ambiguous answers are suggested by the play, particularly in the triangular relationship of Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban.

When Prospero says to Miranda,

We’ll visit Caliban my slave, who never
Yields us kind answer,

Miranda's response is,

’Tis a villain, sir,
I do not love to look on.


Miranda fears Caliban, and she has reason to fear him. The play permits either of two interpretations to explain the threat which Caliban poses. His hostility may be due to his intrinsically evil nature, or to his present circumstances: anyone who is forced into servitude, confined to a rock, kept under constant surveillance, and punished by supernatural means would wish his enslavers ill.3 Whatever Caliban's original disposition may have been when he lived alone on the isle—and we lack disinterested evidence—he must in his present circumstances feel hostility toward Prospero and Miranda. Miranda is far more vulnerable to Caliban's ill will than is her all-powerful father.

Prospero responds to Miranda's implicit plea to be spared exposure to Caliban's hostility with the practical reasons for needing a slave:

But, as ’tis,
We cannot miss him: he does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us. What, ho! slave! Caliban!


A daughter might conceivably tell her loving father that she would prefer that they gather their own wood, that in fact no “profit” can outweigh the uneasiness she experiences. Miranda, however, is not free to speak, since a father who at any time can silence his daughter with “What! My foot my tutor?” will have educated that “foot” to extreme sensitivity toward what her father does or does not with to hear from her. Miranda dare not object to her enforced proximity to a hostile slave, for within the play's universe of discourse any attempt at pressing her own needs would constitute both personal insubordination and a disruption of the hierarchical order of the universe of which the “foot/head” familial organization is but one reflection.

Miranda, admired and sheltered, has no way out of the cycle of being a dependent foot in need of protection, placed in a threatening situation which in turn calls for more protection, and thus increased dependence and increased subservience.

Miranda's presence as the dependent, innocent, feminine extension of Prospero serves a specific end in the play's power dynamics. Many reasons are given for Caliban's enslavement; the one which carries greatest dramatic weight is Caliban's sexual threat to Miranda. When Prospero accuses Caliban of having sought “to violate / The honour of my child” (I.ii.349-50), Caliban is made to concur in the accusation:

O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.


We can test the element of sexual politics at work here by imagining, for a moment, that Prospero had been cast adrift with a small son instead of a daughter. If, twelve years later, a ship appeared bearing King Alonso and a marriageable daughter, the play's resolution of the elder generation's hatreds through the love of their offspring could still have been effected. What would be lost in such a reconstruction would be the sexual element in the enslavement of the native. No son would serve. Prospero needs Miranda as sexual bait, and then needs to protect her from the threat which is inescapable given his hierarchical world—slavery being the ultimate extension of the concept of hierarchy. It is Prospero's needs—the Prosperos of the world—not Miranda's, which are being served here.

The most elusive yet far reaching function of Miranda in the play involves the role of her chastity in the allegorical scheme. Most critics agree that the chastity of Miranda and Ferdinand in the fourth act symbolizes all human virtue (“Chastity is the quality of Christ, the essential symbol of civilization”4), while Caliban's lust symbolizes all human vice.

The first result of this schematic representation of all virtue and vice as chastity and lust is the exclusion from the field of moral concern the very domination and enslavement which the play vividly dramatizes. The exclusion is accomplished with phenomenal success under the guise of religion, humanism, and Neoplatonic idealism, by identifying Prospero with God (or spirit, or soul, or imagination), and Caliban with the Devil (or matter, body, and lust). Within the Christian-humanist tradition, the superiority of spirit over matter, or soul over body, was a commonplace: body existed to serve soul, to be, metaphorically, enslaved by soul. In a tradition which included the Psychomachia, medieval morality plays, and Elizabethan drama, the “higher” and “lower” selves existing within each person's psyche had been represented allegorically in the form of Virtues and Vices. A danger inherent in this mode of portraying inner struggle lay in the possibility of identifying certain human beings with the Vice-figures, and others (oneself included) with the representatives of Virtue. Such identification of self with Virtue and others with Vice led to the great Christian-humanist inversion: the warrant to plunder, exploit and kill in the name of God—Virtue destroying Vice.

It was “only natural” that the educated and privileged be identified with virtue and spirit, and that those who do society's dirty work, and all outsiders, be identified with vice and matter. Ellen Cantarow has analyzed the tendency of allegory to link virtue with privilege and sin with misfortune, making particular power relationships appear inevitable, “natural” and just within a changeless, “divinely ordained” hierarchical order;5 Nancy Hall Rice has analyzed the manner in which the artistic process of embodying evil in one person and then punishing or destroying that person offers an ersatz solution to the complex problem of evil, sanctioning virulent attacks on social minorities or outcasts,6 and Winthrop D. Jordan has discussed the tendency of Western civilization to link African natives, for example, with preconceived concepts of sexuality and vice. Jordan speaks of “the ordered hierarchy of [imputed] sexual aggressiveness”: the lower one's place on the scale of social privilege, the more dangerously lustful one is perceived as being.7

Thus in The Tempest, written some fifty years after England's open participation in the slave trade,8 the island's native is made the embodiment of lust, disobedience, and irremediable evil, while his enslaver is presented as a God-figure. It makes an enormous difference in the expectations raised, whether one speaks of the moral obligations of Prospero-the-slave-owner toward Caliban-his-slave, or speaks of the moral obligations of Prospero-the-God-figure toward Caliban-the-lustful-Vice-figure. In the second instance (the allegorical-symbolic), the only requirement is that Prospero be punitive toward Caliban and that he defend his daughter Miranda's chastity—that daughter being needed as a pawn to counterbalance Caliban's lust. In this symbolic scheme, Miranda is deprived of any possibility of human freedom, growth or thought. She need only be chaste—to exist as a walking emblem of chastity. This kind of symbolism is damaging in that it deflects our attention away from the fact that real counterparts to Caliban, Prospero, and Miranda exist—that real slaves, real slave owners, and real daughters existed in 1613 for Shakespeare's contemporaries and have continued to exist since then.

To return to one of those daughters, Miranda's living counterpart Elizabeth Stuart, at whose wedding festivities The Tempest was performed: it appears likely that King James's daughter and her bridegroom were influenced in their unrealistic expectations of their powers and rights as future rulers by the widespread Jacobean attempt to equate unaccountable aristocratic power with benevolent infallibility and possibly by the expression of that equation in The Tempest. In our own century the play apparently continues to reflect ongoing societal confusions that may seduce women—and men—into complicity with those who appear to favor them while oppressing others. Can we envision a way out? If a twentieth century counterpart to Miranda were to define, and then confront, The Tempest's underlying assumptions—as, obviously, neither the Miranda created by Shakespeare nor her living counterpart in the seventeenth century could do—what issues would she need to clarify? Let us invent a modern Miranda, and permit her to speak a new Epilogue:

“My father is no God-figure. No one is a God-figure. My father is a man, and fallible, as I am. Let’s put an end to the fantasy of infallibility.

“There is no such thing as a ‘natural slave.’ No subhuman laborers exist. Let’s put an end to that fantasy. I will not benefit from such a concept presented in any guise, be it Aristotelian, biblical, allegorical, or Neoplatonic. Three men are reminded of Indians when first they see Caliban; he might be African, his mother having been transported from Algiers. I will not be used as the excuse for his enslavement. If either my father or I feel threatened by his real or imputed lust, we can build a pale around our side of the island, gather our own wood, cook our own food, and clean up after ourselves.

“I cannot give assent to an ethical scheme that locates all virtue symbolically in one part of my anatomy. My virginity has little to do with the forces that will lead to good harvest or to greater social justice.

“Nor am I in any way analogous to a foot. Even if I were, for a moment, to accept my father's hierarchical mode, it is difficult to understand his concern over the chastity of his foot. There is no way to make that work. Neither my father, nor my husband, nor any one alive has the right to refer to me as his foot while thinking of himself as the head—making me the obedient mechanism of his thinking. What I do need is the opportunity to think for myself; I need practice in making mistakes, in testing the consequences of my actions, in becoming aware of the numerous disguises of economic exploitation and racism.

“Will I succeed in creating my ‘brave new world’ which has people in it who no longer exploit one another? I cannot be certain. I will at least make my start by springing ‘the Miranda-trap,’ being forced into unwitting collusion with domination by appearing to be a beneficiary. I need to join forces with Caliban—to join forces with all those who are exploited or oppressed—to stand beside Caliban and say,

As we from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let’s work to set each other free.”


  1. This quotation and subsequent ones are from The Tempest, Arden Shakespeare, ed. Frank Kermode (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958).

  2. “The eclipse and glory of her kind” is the closing line of Sir Henry Wotton's poem, “On His Mistress, The Queen of Bohemia,” in The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh … with those of Sir Henry Wotton and other Courtly Poets from 1540-1650, ed. John Hannah (London: Bell and Sons, 1892), pp. 95-96. “A rose among violets” is a paraphrase of the third verse of that poem; the compliment was often quoted.

  3. That the spirit Ariel, the figure contrasted to Caliban in the allegorical scheme, is a purely imaginary construct for whom no human counterparts exist helps to obscure the fact that human counterparts for Caliban did indeed exist. A community of free blacks had been living in London for over fifteen years at the time of the writing of The Tempest. The first Indian to have been exhibited in England had been brought to London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII. For a full discussion of the historical background see Chapter II of my dissertation, “The Jacobean Bind: A Study of The Tempest, The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois, The Atheist's Tragedy, A King and No King and The Alchemist, the Major Plays of 1610 and 1611, in the Context of Renaissance Expansion and Jacobean Absolutism,” University of Massachusetts/Amherst, 1975. For more on the effects of the ambiguity surrounding the definition of Caliban as an abstract embodiment of evil and as an inhabitant of a newly discovered island see Chapter III of the same work, which considers The Tempest in relation to seventeenth- and twentieth-century imperialism.

    Four critics, among others, who have dealt with the colonial aspects of The Tempest and have focused upon Caliban and his enslavement as moral concerns are O. Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, trans. Pamela Powesland (New York: Praeger, 1956); Philip Mason, Prospero's Magic: Some Thoughts on Class and Race (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 75-97; Roberto Fernández Retamar, “Caliban,” Massachusetts Review, 15 (Winter-Spring 1974), 7-72; and Kermode, “Introduction,” The Tempest. While Kermode observes that Shakespeare, and more generally Renaissance writers, held contradictory attitudes toward Indians, viewing them on one hand as inhabitants of a golden age, with no meum or tuum, and on the other hand as human beasts in whom one could place no trust, he nevertheless arrives at the conclusion that “the confusion of interests characteristic of the subject is harmoniously reflected in Shakespeare's play” (p. xxxi)—a “harmony” more likely to be acceptable to those who are at ease with the historical reality of conquest and enslavement than by those who, like Caliban's living counterparts, have been conquered, enslaved, or colonized. It is puzzling that even an article as sensitive as Harry Berger, Jr.'s “Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest,” in Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), 253-83, in its exploration of the contradictory elements in Prospero's character—his tendency to see himself as a god, his limited knowledge of human nature, his pleasure in dominating others, and his preference for, and success in, dealing with projected embodiments of pure evil—falls short of focusing upon the dramatization of enslavement itself as an ethical concern. I explore this question, posed in general terms, in my “Cracking the Code of The Tempest,” Bucknell Review, 25 (Spring 1979), issue on “Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches,” ed. Harry R. Garvin and Michael D. Payne.

  4. Irving Ribner, “Introduction” to Shakespeare's Tempest, ed. George Lyman Kittredge, rev. Ribner (Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1966), p. xv.

  5. Ellen Cantarow, “A Wilderness of Opinions Confounded: Allegory and Ideology,” College English, 34 (1972), 215-16.

  6. Nancy Hall Rice, “Beauty and the Beast and the Little Boy: Clues about the Origins of Sexism and Racism from Folklore and Literature,” Diss. University of Massachusetts/Amherst 1974, p. 207.

  7. Winthrop D. Jordan, The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 196.

  8. See, for example, accounts of the 1562-68 slaving voyages of Sir John Hawkins (one with Sir Francis Drake) which appear in Richard Hakluyt's Principall Navigations Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (London, 1589; facs. rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), Part Two, 521-22, 526-29, 531-32, 553-54, 562-64.

Rob Nixon (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest,” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 557-78.

[In the following essay, Nixon focuses on the anticolonial interpretations of The Tempest set forth by African and Caribbean intellectuals of the period from the late 1950s to early 1970s.]

First to possess his books.

The Tempest

The era from the late fifties to the early seventies was marked in Africa and the Caribbean by a rush of newly articulated anticolonial sentiment that was associated with the burgeoning of both international black consciousness and more localized nationalist movements. Between 1957 and 1973 the vast majority of African and the larger Caribbean colonies won their independence; the same period witnessed the Cuban and Algerian revolutions, the latter phase of the Kenyan “Mau Mau” revolt, the Katanga crisis in the Congo, the Trinidadian Black Power uprising and, equally important for the atmosphere of militant defiance, the civil rights movement in the United States, the student revolts of 1968, and the humbling of the United States during the Vietnam War. This period was distinguished, among Caribbean and African intellectuals, by a pervasive mood of optimistic outrage. Frequently graduates of British or French universities, they were the first generation from their regions self-assured and numerous enough to call collectively for a renunciation of Western standards as the political revolts found their cultural counterparts in insurrections against the bequeathed values of the colonial powers.

In the context of such challenges to an increasingly discredited European colonialism, a series of dissenting intellectuals chose to utilize a European text as a strategy for (in George Lamming's words) getting “out from under this ancient mausoleum of [Western] historic achievement.”1 They seized upon The Tempest as a way of amplifying their calls for decolonization within the bounds of the dominant cultures. But at the same time these Caribbeans and Africans adopted the play as a founding text in an oppositional lineage which issued from a geopolitically and historically specific set of cultural ambitions. They perceived that the play could contribute to their self-definition during a period of great flux. So, through repeated, reinforcing, transgressive appropriations of The Tempest, a once silenced group generated its own tradition of “error” which in turn served as one component of the grander counterhegemonic nationalist and black internationalist endeavors of the period. Because that era of Caribbean and African history was marked by such extensive, open contestation of cultural values, the destiny of The Tempest at that time throws into uncommonly stark relief the status of value as an unstable social process rather than a static and, in literary terms, merely textual attribute.

Some Caribbean and African intellectuals anticipated that their efforts to unearth from The Tempest a suppressed narrative of their historical abuse and to extend that narrative in the direction of liberation would be interpreted as philistine. But Lamming, for one, wryly resisted being intimidated by any dominant consensus: “I shall reply that my mistake, lived and deeply felt by millions of men like me—proves the positive value of error” (PE, p. 13). Lamming's assertion that his unorthodoxy is collectively grounded is crucial: those who defend a text's universal value can easily discount a solitary dissenting voice as uncultured or quirky, but it is more difficult to ignore entirely a cluster of allied counterjudgments, even if the group can still be stigmatized. Either way, the notion of universal value is paradoxically predicated on a limited inclusiveness, on the assumption that certain people will fail to appreciate absolute worth. As Pierre Bourdieu, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Tony Bennett have all shown, a dominant class or culture's power to declare certain objects or activities self-evidently valuable is an essential measure for reproducing social differentiation.2 But resistance to the hegemony of such hierarchies is still possible. In this context, Lamming's statement exudes the fresh confidence of the high era of decolonization, in which a “philistinism” arose that was sufficiently powerful and broadly based to generate an alternative orthodoxy responsive to indigenous interests and needs.

For Frantz Fanon, decolonization was the period when the peoples of the oppressed regions, force-fed for so long on foreign values, could stomach them no longer: “In the colonial context the settler only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of the white man's values. In the period of decolonization, the colonized masses mock at these very values, insult them, and vomit them up.”3 From the late fifties onward, there was a growing resistance in African and Caribbean colonies to remote-controlled anything, from administrative structures to school curricula, and the phase of “nauseating mimicry” (in Fanon's phrase) gave way to a phase in which colonized cultures sought to define their own cultures reactively and aggressively from within.4 In short, decolonization was the period when “the machine [went] into reverse.”5 This about-face entailed that indigenous cultural forms be substituted for alien ones—inevitably a hybrid process of retrieving suppressed traditions and inventing new ones. Both approaches were present in the newfound preoccupation with The Tempest: hints of New World culture and history were dragged to the surface, while at other moments the play was unabashedly refashioned to meet contemporary political and cultural needs.6

Given the forcefulness of the reaction against the values of the colonial powers, it may appear incongruous that Caribbean and African intellectuals should have integrated a canonical European text like The Tempest into their struggle; it made for, in Roberto Fernández Retamar's words, “an alien elaboration.”7 And this response may seem doubly incongruous given Shakespeare's distinctive position as a measure of the relative achievements of European and non-European civilizations. In discussions of value, Shakespeare is, of course, invariably treated as a special case, having come to serve as something like the gold standard of literature. For the English he is as much an institution and an industry as a corpus of texts: a touchstone of national identity, a lure for tourists, an exportable commodity, and one of the securest forms of cultural capital around. But the weight of Shakespeare's ascribed authority was felt differently in the colonies. What for the English and, more generally, Europeans, could be a source of pride and a confirmation of their civilization, for colonial subjects often became a chastening yardstick of their “backwardness.” The exhortation to master Shakespeare was instrumental in showing up non-European “inferiority,” for theirs would be the flawed mastery of those culturally remote from Shakespeare's stock. A schooled resemblance could become the basis for a more precise discrimination, for, to recall Homi Bhabha's analysis of mimicry in colonial discourse, “to be Anglicized is emphatically not to be English.”8 And so, in colonial circumstances, the bard could become symptomatic and symbolic of the education of Africans and Caribbeans into a passive, subservient relationship to dominant colonial culture.

One aspect of this passive orientation toward Europe is touched on by Lamming, the Barbadian novelist who was to appropriate The Tempest so actively for his own ends. Discussing his schooling during the early 1940s, Lamming recalls how the teacher “followed the curriculum as it was. He did what he had to do: Jane Austen, some Shakespeare, Wells's novel Kipps, and so on. What happened was that they were teaching exactly whatever the Cambridge Syndicate demanded. That was the point of it. These things were directly connected. Papers were set in Cambridge and our answers were sent back there to be corrected. We had to wait three to four months. Nobody knew what was happening till they were returned.”9 Given the resistance during decolonization to this kind of cultural dependency, those writers who took up The Tempest from the standpoint of the colonial subject did so in a manner that was fraught with complexity. On the one hand, they hailed Caliban and identified themselves with him; on the other, they were intolerant of received colonial definitions of Shakespeare's value. They found the European play compelling but insisted on engaging with it on their own terms.

The newfound interest in The Tempest during decolonization was, in terms of the play's history, unprecedentedly sudden and concentrated. However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, The Tempest's value had been augmented by a prevalent perception of it as a likely vehicle first for Social Darwinian and later for imperial ideas. This tendency, which Trevor Griffiths has thoroughly documented, was evident in both performances and critical responses to the play.10 A notable instance was Caliban: The Missing Link (1873), wherein Daniel Wilson contended that Shakespeare had preempted some of Darwin's best insights by creating “a novel anthropoid of a high type.”11 Amassing evidence from the play, Wilson deduced that Caliban would have been black, had prognathous jaws, and manifested a low stage of cultural advancement. Wilson's text shuttles between The Tempest, Darwin, and Linnaeus and is interlarded with detailed brain measurements of gibbons, baboons, chimpanzees, and a range of ethnic groupings.

Ironically, it was Beerbohm Tree's unabashedly jingoistic production of The Tempest in 1904 that elicited the first recorded response to the play in anti-imperial terms, as one member of the audience assimilated the action to events surrounding the Matabele uprising in Rhodesia:

When the man-monster, brutalised by long continued torture, begins, ‘This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me’, we have the whole case of the aboriginal against aggressive civilisation dramatised before us. I confess I felt a sting of conscience—vicariously suffered for my Rhodesian friends, notably Dr. Jameson—when Caliban proceeded to unfold a similar case to that of the Matebele. It might have been the double of old King Lobengula rehearsing the blandishments which led to his doom: ‘When thou camest first / Thou strok’dst me, and mad'st much of me; would'st give me’—all that was promised by the Chartered Company to secure the charter.12

Just as the Matabele uprising was a distant, premonitory sign of the anticolonial struggles to come, so, too, W. T. Stead's unorthodox response to The Tempest anticipated a time when the play would be widely mobilized and esteemed as an expression of “the whole case of the ‘aboriginal’ against aggressive civilisation.”

But it was another forty-four years before any text provided a sustained reassessment of The Tempest in light of the immediate circumstances leading up to decolonization. That text was Psychologie de la colonisation, written by the French social scientist, Octave Mannoni. However much Third World intellectuals have subsequently quarreled with his manner of mobilizing the play, Mannoni's inaugural gesture helped to shape the trajectory of those associated appropriations which lay ahead and, concomitantly, to bring about the reestimation of The Tempest in Africa and the Caribbean. Mannoni's novel response enabled him to evolve a theory of colonialism with Prospero and Caliban as prototypes; conversely, his hypotheses about colonial relations, arising from his experiences in Madagascar, made it possible for him to rethink the play. This reciprocal process was not gratuitous but prompted by an early stirring of African nationalism: Mannoni is insistent that his theory only fell into place through his exposure to one of the twilight moments of French colonialism—the Madagascan uprising of 1947-48 in which sixty thousand Madagascans, one thousand colonial soldiers, and several hundred settlers were killed. In 1947 his ideas began to take shape, and, by the time the revolt had been suppressed a year later, the manuscript was complete. The occasional character of Psychologie de la colonisation is foregrounded in the introduction, which Mannoni closes by marking the coincidence of his ideas with “a certain moment in history, a crisis in the evolution of politics, when many things that had been hidden were brought into the light of day; but it was only a moment, and time will soon have passed it by.”13 The pressing horrors of the Madagascan crisis prompted Mannoni to find a new significance for The Tempest, encouraging him to weave a reading of Shakespeare's poetic drama through his reading of the incipient drama of decolonization.

Mannoni's account of the psychological climate of colonialism is advanced through an opposition between the Prospero (or inferiority) complex and the Caliban (or dependence) complex. On this view, Europeans in Madagascar typically displayed the need, common among people from a competitive society, to feel highly regarded by others. However, the Prospero-type is not just any white man, but specifically the sort whose “grave lack of sociability combined with a pathological urge to dominate” drives him to seek out uncompetitive situations where, among a subservient people, his power is amplified and his least skills assume the aspect of superior magic (PC, p. 102). Whether a French settler in Africa or Shakespeare's duke, he is loath to depart his adopted island, knowing full well that back home his standing will shrink to mundane dimensions. Mannoni found the Madagascans, on the other hand, to be marked by a Caliban complex, a dependence on authority purportedly characteristic of a people forced out of a secure “tribal” society and into the less stable, competitively edged hierarchies of a semi-Westernized existence. According to this theory, colonialism introduced a situation where the Madagascan was exposed for the first time to the notion and possibility of abandonment. Crucially, the colonist failed to comprehend the Madagascan's capacity to feel “neither inferior nor superior but yet wholly dependent,” an unthinkable state of mind for someone from a competitive society (PC, p. 157). So, in Mannoni's terms, the Madagascan revolt was fueled less by a desire to sunder an oppressive master-servant bond than by the people's resentment of the colonizers' failure to uphold that bond more rigorously and provide them with the security they craved. What the colonial subjects sought was the paradoxical freedom of secure dependence rather than any autonomous, self-determining freedom. This assumption clearly shaped Mannoni's skepticism about the Madagascans' desire, let alone their capacity, to achieve national independence.

Mannoni values The Tempest most highly for what he takes to be Shakespeare's dramatization of two cultures' mutual sense of a trust betrayed: Prospero is a fickle dissembler, Caliban an ingrate. The nodal lines here, and those that draw Mannoni's densest commentary, are spoken by Caliban in the play's second scene. They should be quoted at length, for they are taken up repeatedly by subsequent Caribbean and African appropriators of The Tempest.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              When thou cam'st first,
Thou strok'st me, and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night, and then I lov’d thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Curs’d be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.(14)

To Mannoni, it appears evident that “Caliban does not complain of being exploited; he complains of being betrayed.” He “has fallen prey to the resentment which succeeds the breakdown of dependence” (PC, p. 106). This view is buttressed by an analogous interpretation of Caliban's revolt in league with Trinculo as an action launched “not to win his freedom, for he could not support freedom, but to have a new master whose ‘foot-licker’ he can become. He is delighted at the prospect. It would be hard to find a better example of the dependence complex in its pure state” (PC, pp. 106-7).

Such statements rankled badly with Caribbean and African intellectuals who, in the fifties, for the first time sensed the imminence of large-scale decolonization in their regions. In such circumstances, the insinuation that Caliban was incapable of surviving on his own and did not even aspire to such independence in the first place caused considerable affront and helped spur Third Worlders to mount adversarial interpretations of the play which rehabilitated Caliban into a heroic figure, inspired by noble rage to oust the interloping Prospero from his island. Fanon and Aimé Césaire, two of Mannoni's most vehement critics, found the “ethno-psychologist's” disregard for economic exploitation especially jarring and accused him of reducing colonialism to an encounter between two psychological types with complementary predispositions who, for a time at least, find their needs dovetailing tidily.15Psychologie de la colonisation, these critics charged, made Caliban out to be an eager partner in his own colonization. Mannoni, in a statement like “wherever Europeans have founded colonies of the type we are considering, it can safely be said that their coming was unconsciously expected—even desired—by the future subject peoples,” seemed to discount any possibility of Europe being culpable for the exploitation of the colonies (PC, p. 86). Mannoni's critics foresaw, moreover, just how readily his paradigm could be harnessed by Europeans seeking to thwart the efforts for self-determination that were gathering impetus in the fifties.

Fanon and Césaire's fears about the implications of Mannoni's thesis were vindicated by the appearance in 1962 of Prospero's Magic: Some Thoughts on Class and Race by Philip Mason, an English colonial who sought to give credence to Mannoni's ideas by using them to rationalize resistance to colonialism in Kenya (“Mau Mau”), India, and Southern Rhodesia. The upshot of this effort was Mason's conclusion that “a colonial rebellion may be a protest not against repression but against progress, not against the firm hand but against its withdrawal” and that (for such is every “tribal” society's craving for firm authority) “countries newly released from colonialism … [will experience] a reduction of personal freedom.”16

Prospero's Magic is an intensely autobiographical and occasional work. Its author, in siding with Mannoni, was also seeking to counteract the first fully fledged Caribbean appropriation of The Tempest, Lamming's recently published Pleasures of Exile (1960). The lectures comprising Prospero's Magic were delivered at the University College of the West Indies on the eve of Jamaica's independence and are based on Mason's more than twenty years as a colonial employee in India, Nigeria, and Rhodesia, where he witnessed the death throes—or as he terms it, the fulfillment—of British imperialism. Rereading The Tempest in the political atmosphere of 1962, he was discomfited by his recognition of the Prospero in himself. Circumstances had altered: “While many of us today find we dislike in Prospero things we dislike in ourselves, our fathers admired him without question and so indeed did my generation until lately” (PM, p. 92).17 Mason tried to square his awareness that colonialism was becoming increasingly discredited with his personal need to salvage some value and self-respect from his decades of colonial “service.” So he was at once a member of the first generation to acknowledge distaste for Prospero and personally taken aback by his own sudden redundancy: “With what deep reluctance does the true Prospero put aside his book and staff, the magic of power and office, and go to live in Cheltenham!” (PM, p. 96). Mason, for one, conceived of himself as writing at the very moment when the colonial master was called upon to break and bury his staff.

By the time Caribbeans and Africans took up The Tempest, that is, from 1959 onward, widespread national liberation seemed not only feasible but imminent, and the play was mobilized in defense of Caliban's right to the land and to cultural autonomy. “This island's mine by Sycorax my mother / Which thou tak'st from me” (1.2.333-34) are the lines that underlie much of the work that was produced by African and Caribbean intellectuals in the 1960s and early 1970s.18 Those same two lines introduce Caliban's extended complaint (quoted at length above), the nodal speech Mannoni had cited as evidence that Shakespeare was dramatizing a relation of dependence, not one of exploitation. But, significantly, and in keeping with his very different motives for engaging with the play, Mannoni had lopped off those two lines when working the passage into his argument. On this score, Third World responses consistently broke with Mannoni: Caliban, the decolonizer, was enraged not at being orphaned by colonial paternalism but at being insufficiently abandoned by it.

The first Caribbean writer to champion Caliban was Lamming. His nonfictional Pleasures of Exile can be read as an effort to redeem from the past, as well as to stimulate, an indigenous Antillean line of creativity to rival the European traditions which seemed bent on arrogating to themselves all notions of culture. Lamming's melange of a text—part essay on the cultural politics of relations between colonizer and colonized, part autobiography, and part textual criticism of, in particular, The Tempest and C. L. R. James' The Black Jacobins (1938)—was sparked by two events, one personal, the other more broadly historical.19 Lamming began his text in 1959, shortly after disembarking in Southampton as part of the great wave of West Indian immigrants settling in Britain in the fifties. But his circumstances differed from those of most of his compatriots, for he was immigrating as an aspirant writer. As such he was keenly aware of taking up residence in the headquarters of the English language and culture and, concomitantly, of being only ambiguously party to that language and culture, even though a dialect of English was his native tongue and even though—for such was his colonial schooling—he was more intimate with Shakespeare and the English Revolution than with the writings and history of his own region.

Lamming's reflections on the personal circumstances which occasioned The Pleasures of Exile are suffused with his sense of the book's historical moment. Writing on the brink of the sixties, he was highly conscious that colonial Africa and the Caribbean were entering a new phase. The political mood of the book is expectant (“Caliban's history … belongs entirely to the future” [PE, p. 107]), most evidently in his account of an envious visit to Ghana, the first of the newly independent African states. That trip sharpened his anguished sense of the British West Indies' failure as yet to achieve comparable autonomy. He recalls the intensity of that feeling in his introduction to the 1984 edition: “There were no independent countries in the English-speaking Caribbean when I started to write The Pleasures of Exile in 1959. With the old exceptions of Ethiopia and Liberia, there was only one in Black Africa, and that was Ghana. Twenty years later almost every rock and pebble in the Caribbean had acquired this status” (PE, p. 7). While looking ahead to Caribbean self-determination, Lamming was also writing self-consciously in the aftermath of an action one year back that had quickened nationalist ambitions throughout the area: “Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution reordered our history. … The Cuban revolution was a Caribbean response to that imperial menace which Prospero conceived as a civilising mission” (PE, p. 7).

Lamming's relationship to decolonization is markedly distinct from Mannoni's. The Frenchman was in Madagascar as a social scientist observing and systematizing the psychological impulses behind an incipient struggle for national autonomy, while the Barbadian's reflections on decolonization are less distanced and more personal, as he declares himself to be Caliban's heir. Lamming's and Mannoni's different tacks are most conspicuous in their treatment of Caliban's pronouncement: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse” (1.2.363-64). From that quotation Mannoni launches an analysis of the role in 1947-48 of the westernized Malagasies, some of whom had become so acculturated during study abroad that they could no longer engage with their countryfellows. The cross-cultural status of yet others who were less thoroughly assimilated but had become fluent in acrimony facilitated their rise to positions of leadership in the national resistance. Lamming, by contrast, takes up Caliban's remarks on language as one who is himself a substantially Europeanized Third Worlder, a West Indian nationalist living in England, and someone reluctant to segregate his theoretical from his autobiographical insights.20 Much of the personal urgency of Lamming's text stems from his assimilation of Caliban's linguistic predicament to his own. As a writer by vocation, he is especially alert to the way colonialism has generated linguistic discrimination, to how, as a West Indian born into English, he is branded a second-class speaker of his first language.

Though Lamming addresses the question of the unlanded Caliban who declares “This island's mine,” he dwells most obsessively on the educational inheritance which he finds enunciated in the speech “You taught me language.” While the nationalist struggle provides a shaping context for The Pleasures of Exile, Lamming's Caliban is not just any colonial subject but specifically the colonized writer-intellectual, the marginal person of letters. Lamming's root frustration is the ostensible lack of parity between the possibilities for political and for cultural freedom. Come formal independence, the people may establish their own laws and governments, but won’t Caribbean writers still lag behind, permanently shackled to the colonizer's language—whether English, French, or Spanish—since it is the only one they have? “Prospero lives in the absolute certainty that Language which is his gift to Caliban is the very prison in which Caliban's achievements will be realised and restricted. Caliban can never reach perfection, not even the perfection implicit in Miranda's privileged ignorance” (PE, p. 110).21 That is, as long as Caliban is still bound to his former master's language, he is still partly condemned to live the life of a servant.

What holds for language holds equally for culture in general. If Caliban's accent sounds sour and deformed to the British ear, so too his knowledge of British traditions—no matter how relentlessly they have been drummed into him in Barbados—will be shown up as flawed and fragmentary. Yet on this score Lamming is unevenly pessimistic, for his very appropriation of The Tempest testifies to his faith in the Caribbean intellectual's capacity to scale the conventional heights of British culture. Instead of deferring slavishly to a British norm, Lamming manages—with Caliban's lines at the ready—to treat that norm as a pretext for and object of abuse. To write about Shakespeare is a strategy for commanding a hearing in the West, but he values this audibility primarily because it enables him to draw attention to his ostracism. He is only too aware of the implications of quoting Shakespeare to legitimate his “illegitimate” treatment of that same hallowed author:

It is my intention to make use of The Tempest as a way of presenting a certain state of feeling which is the heritage of the exiled and colonial writer from the British Caribbean.

Naturally, I anticipate from various quarters the obvious charge of blasphemy; yet there are occasions when blasphemy must be seen as one privilege of the excluded Caliban. [PE, p. 9]

Lamming seizes the outcast's prerogative to impiety in part to shake the insiders' monopoly of a text that draws and bears on Caribbean history. But this destructive impulse feeds a more positive one: the desire to mount an indigenous countertradition, with a reinterpreted Caliban from 1611 and the contemporary, about-to-be-liberated Antillean of 1959 flanking that tradition. So for all its dense, original analogies between The Tempest and the Caribbean of the late fifties, what is at stake in The Pleasures of Exile is something larger than the immediate, local value of a Shakespearean play: it is the very possibility of decolonizing the area's cultural history by replacing an imposed with an endemic line of thought and action. Within the context of this grand design, the initial gesture of annexing Shakespeare was pivotal, as it generated a Caliban who could stand as a prototype for successive Caribbean figures in whom cultural and political activism were to cohere. Lamming's reconstructed tradition runs through Toussaint Louverture, C. L. R. James, and Fidel Castro to the author himself who, like many of his generation of West Indian writers, immigrated to England to embark on a literary career but while there also pressed for his region's independence. That these particular figures should have been selected to brace the countertradition points to Lamming's conviction that—linguistic dilemmas notwithstanding—Caribbean culture and politics had been and should ideally continue to be allies in each other's decolonization.

In spirit, Lamming's dissident reassessment of one of the high texts of European culture had been matched by the Trinidadian James' reverse angle in The Black Jacobins on one of the most celebrated periods of European history, the French Revolution. The Pleasures of Exile is designed to make these two unorthodox gestures seem of a piece, through remarks such as “[there] C. L. R. James shows us Caliban as Prospero had never known him” (PE, p. 119). James' Caliban is Toussaint Louverture, leader of the first successful Caribbean struggle for independence, the Haitian slave revolt of 1791-1803. As the title of his book might suggest, James was concerned to dredge up a counternarrative, from a Caribbean perspective, of events which had been submerged beneath the freight of Eurocentric history. For Lamming, James' action and others like it were essential to the establishment of a Calibanic lineage; but once established, that lineage had still to be sustained, which would require one salvaging operation after another. This apprehension was borne out when, at the time of writing The Pleasures of Exile, Lamming discovered that James' book, out of print for twenty years, was in danger of sinking into neglect. So he set himself the task of doing in turn for James what James had done for Louverture: keeping afloat a vital, remedial tradition that was threatening to disappear.

During the era of decolonization, negritude proved to be one of the strongest components of this remedial tradition, and it was the negritudist from Martinique, Césaire, who came to renovate The Tempest theatrically for black cultural ends in a manner indebted to Lamming if fiercer in its defiance. These two writers' approaches coincided most explicitly in their determination to unearth an endemic lineage of cultural-cum-political activists; it is telling that within the space of two years, each man published a book resuscitating Toussaint Louverture and celebrating his example.22

Césaire's Une Tempête (1969) exemplifies the porous boundaries between European and Afro-Caribbean cultures even within the anticolonial endeavors of the period. As an influence on Césaire's response to Shakespeare, Lamming keeps company with Mannoni and the German critic, Janheinz Jahn. Mannoni had experience of French island colonies in both Africa and the Caribbean for, prior to his stint in Madagascar, he had served as an instructor in a Martinican school where Césaire had been his precocious student. More than twenty years later, in Discours sur le colonialisme, Césaire upbraided his former schoolmaster for not thinking through the implications of his colonial paradigm. And Césaire's subsequent, inevitably reactive adaptation of Shakespeare further demonstrated just how far he had diverged from Mannoni's motives for valuing The Tempest. More in keeping with the spirit of Une Tempête was Jahn's Geschichte der neo-afrikanischen Literatur, which appeared a few years before Césaire wrote his play. Jahn's pioneering study gave prominence to the Calibanesque in Mannoni and Lamming and, by designating the negritude writers (Césaire, Leopold Senghor, and Ousmane Diop) black cultural liberators à la Caliban, hinted at ideas that Césaire was to develop more amply. Notable among these was Jahn's attempt to counteract Lamming's dejected pronouncements about the confining character of Prospero's language by exhorting Caliban to free himself through cultural bilingualism—by recovering long-lost African strains and using them to offset the derivative, European components of his cultural identity. Jahn urged further that suitable elements of European culture be transformed into vehicles for black cultural values. Along these lines, negritude could be defined as “the successful revolt in which Caliban broke out of the prison of Prospero's language, by converting that language to his own needs of self-expression.”23

Césaire has been quite explicit about his motives for reworking The Tempest:

I was trying to ‘de-mythify’ the tale. To me Prospero is the complete totalitarian. I am always surprised when others consider him the wise man who ‘forgives’. What is most obvious, even in Shakespeare's version, is the man's absolute will to power. Prospero is the man of cold reason, the man of methodical conquest—in other words, a portrait of the ‘enlightened’ European. And I see the whole play in such terms: the ‘civilized’ European world coming face to face for the first time with the world of primitivism and magic. Let’s not hide the fact that in Europe the world of reason has inevitably led to various kinds of totalitarianism … Caliban is the man who is still close to his beginnings, whose link with the natural world has not yet been broken. Caliban can still participate in a world of marvels, whereas his master can merely ‘create’ them through his acquired knowledge. At the same time, Caliban is also a rebel—the positive hero, in a Hegelian sense. The slave is always more important than his master—for it is the slave who makes history.24

Césaire's perception of Prospero as “the man of methodical conquest” and his insistence on the slave as the preeminent historical agent become the touchstones for his radically polarized adaptation of Shakespeare. Forgiveness and reconciliation give way to irreconcilable differences; the roles of Ferdinand and Miranda are whittled down to a minimum; and the play's colonial dimensions are writ large. Antonio and Alonso vie with Prospero for control over newly charted lands abroad, and Shakespeare's rightful Duke of Milan is delivered to the island not by the providence of a “happy storm” but through a confederacy rooted in imperial ambitions. Prospero is demythologized and rendered contemporary by making him altogether less white magical and a master of the technology of oppression; his far from inscrutable power is embodied in antiriot control gear and an arsenal. Violating rather than communing with life on the island, he is, in Caliban's phrase, the “anti-Natur.

Une Tempête self-consciously counterpoises the materialist Prospero with an animistic slave empowered by a culture that coexists empathetically with nature. Indeed, Caliban's culture of resistance is his sole weaponry, but it is more formidable than the shallow culture Shakespeare permits him, as Césaire plumbs the depths of the slave's African past to make him a more equal adversary.25 Caliban's defiance is expressed most strongly through the celebration of the Yoruba gods Shango and Eshu; two of his four songs of liberation fete Shango, an African figure who has survived in Caribbean voodoo and Brazilian macumba. And in a critical irruption, Eshu scatters Prospero's carefully ordered classical masque, making the imported divinities seem precious, effete, and incongruous.

Césair's Caliban also goes beyond Shakespeare's in his refusal to subscribe to the etiquette of subjugation:

caliban: Uhuru!
prospero: Qu’est-ce que tu
caliban: Je dis Uhuru!
prospero: Encore une remontée
de ton langage barbare. Je t’ai déjà dit que n’arrive
pas ça. D’ailleurs, tu pourrais être poli, un bonjour ne
te tuerait pas!(26)

This opening exchange between Caliban and his colonial overlord sets the stage for Césaire's conviction that the culture of slaves need not be an enslaved culture. Here he is more optimistic than Lamming, who saw Caribbean cultures of resistance as ineluctably circumscribed by the colonizer's language; one thinks particularly of Lamming in Ghana, casting an envious eye over children chatting in their indigenous tongue, a language that “owed Prospero no debt of vocabulary” (PE, p. 162). Even if Césaire's Caliban cannot throw off European influences entirely, his recuperation of a residual past is sufficient to secure his relative cultural autonomy. Crucially, his first utterance is “Uhuru,” the Swahili term for freedom which gained international currency through the struggles for decolonization in the late fifties and sixties. And Caliban retorts to Prospero's demand for a bonjour by charging that he has only been instructed in the colonial tongue so he can submit to the magisterial imperatives, and by declaring that he will no longer respond to the name Caliban, a colonial invention bound anagramatically to the degrading “cannibal.” Instead, the island's captive king christens himself “X” in a Black Muslim gesture that commemorates his lost name, buried beneath layers of colonial culture. The play supposes, in sum, that Caribbean colonial subjects can best fortify their revolt by reviving, wherever possible, cultural forms dating back to before that wracking sea-change which was the Middle Passage.

Césaire's remark that the slave, as maker of history, “is always more important than his master” has both a retrospective and an anticipatory force, pointing back to Louverture, Haiti, and the only triumphant slave revolt, and forward through the present to colonialism's demise. Césaire steeps his play most explicitly in the contemporary Afro-Caribbean struggles for self-determination when he stages, via Ariel and Caliban, the debate, ubiquitous in the late fifties and sixties, between the rival strategies for liberation advanced by proponents of evolutionary and revolutionary change. The mulatto Ariel shuns violence and holds that, faced with Prospero's stockpiled arsenal, they are more likely to win freedom through conciliation than refractoriness. But from Caliban's perspective Ariel is a colonial collaborator, a political and cultural sellout who, aspiring both to rid himself nonviolently of Prospero and to emulate his values, is reduced to negotiating for liberty from a position of powerlessness. The success of Caliban's uncompromising strategies is imminent at the end of the drama. When the other Europeans return to Italy, Prospero is unable to accompany them, for he is in the thrall of a psychological battle with his slave (shades of Mannoni here), shouting “Je défendrai la civilisation!” but intuiting that “le climat a changé.” At the close, Caliban is chanting ecstatically, “La Liberté Ohé, La Liberté,” and defying the orders of a master whose authority and sanity are teetering.27

Césaire, then, radically reassessed The Tempest in terms of the circumstances of his region, taking the action to the brink of colonialism's demise. He valued the play because he saw its potential as a vehicle for dramatizing the evolution of colonialism in his region and for sharpening the contemporary ideological alternatives open to would-be-liberated Antilleans. Césaire sought, from an openly interested standpoint, to amend the political acoustics of Shakespeare's play, to make the action resonate with the dangers of supine cultural assimilation, a concern since his student days that was accentuated during the high period of decolonization. This renovation of the play for black cultural ends was doubly impertinent: besides treating a classic sacrilegiously, it implicitly lampooned the educational practice, so pervasive in the colonies, of distributing only bowdlerized versions of Shakespeare, of watering him down “for the natives.” Une Tempête can thus be read as parodying this habit by indicating how the bard might have looked were he indeed made fit reading for a subject people.

Césaire's play was published in 1969. The years 1968 through 1971 saw the cresting of Caribbean and African interest in The Tempest as a succession of essayists, novelists, poets, and dramatists sought to integrate the play into the cultural forces pitted against colonialism. During those four years, The Tempest was appropriated among the Caribbeans by Césaire, Fernández Retamar (twice), Lamming (in a novelistic reworking of some of the ideas first formulated in The Pleasures of Exile), and the Barbadian poet Edward Braithwaite. In Africa, the play was taken up during the same period by John Pepper Clark in Nigeria, Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Kenya, and David Wallace in Zambia.28 Among these, Braithwaite and Fernández Retamar followed Lamming's lead, finding a topical, regional urgency for the play through articulating the Cuban revolution to Caliban's revolt. Braithwaite's poem, “Caliban,” salutes the Cuban revolution against a backdrop of lamentation over the wrecked state of the Caribbean. The body of the poem, with its clipped calypso phrasing, knits together allusions to Caliban's song, “’Ban, ’Ban, Ca-Caliban,” Ferdinand's speech, “Where should this music be?” and Ariel's response, “Full fadom five.” But it is Caliban the slave, not the royal Alonso, who suffers a sea-change, falling “through the water's / cries / down / down / down / where the music hides / him / down / down / down / where the si- / lence lies.” And he is revived not by Ariel's ethereal strains and, behind them, Prospero's white magic, but by the earthy music of the carnival and the intercession of black gods.29

But it was Fernández Retamar, a prominent figure in the cultural renovation of postrevolutionary Cuba, whose interest in the play was most specifically sparked by that nation's experience of decolonization. He first brought The Tempest glancingly to bear on the circumstances of his region in “Cuba Hasta Fidel” (1969); two years later he elaborated more fully on this correspondence. The second essay, “Caliban: Notes Towards a Discussion of Culture in Our America,” at once passionately chronicles the accumulative symbolic significance of Caliban and commemorates those whose deeds and utterances bodied forth the author's conception of the Calibanesque. This sixty-five-page exhortative history draws together many of the issues deliberated by earlier writers:

Our symbol then is not Ariel … but rather Caliban. This is something that we, the mestizo inhabitants of these same isles where Caliban lived, see with particular clarity: Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, enslaved Caliban, and taught him his language to make himself understood. What else can Caliban do but use that same language—today he has no other—to curse him, to wish that the “red plague” would fall on him? I know no other metaphor more expressive of our cultural situation, of our reality. [“C,” p. 24]

Fernández Retamar proceeds to list thirty-five exemplary Calibans, among them Louverture, Castro, Césaire, and Fanon. And just as Lamming had singled out Louverture for special treatment, here José Martí, the late nineteenth-century Cuban intellectual and political activist who died in the struggle for Cuban independence, is commended at length for his fidelity to the spirit of Caliban.30

Fernández Retamar, as flagrantly as Lamming, makes it apparent how little interest he has in affecting any “scholarly distance” from The Tempest. Far from striving to efface his personality, affiliations, and the circumstances of his reading of The Tempest, he steeps his essay in occasion and function and speaks consistently in the first-person plural, a voice that inflects his words with a sense of collective autobiography. His interest is in the advantage to be derived from the play by a community who, from a European perspective, could possess at best an ancillary understanding of Shakespeare and, at worst, would be likely perpetrators of barbarous error.31 Yet that very exclusion conferred on them a coherent identity: “For it is the coloniser who brings us together, who reveals the profound similarities existing above and beyond our secondary differences” (“C,” p. 14). Oppositional appropriations of The Tempest could be enabling because “to assume our condition as Caliban implies rethinking our history from the other side, from the viewpoint of the other protagonist” (“C,” p. 28). Put differently, having the nerve to push the play against the Western critical grain, marginalized Caribbeans were relieved of the struggle, unwinnable in Western terms, to gain admission to the right side. Their brazen unorthodoxy thus became instrumental in redefining the wrong as the other side, in opening up a space for themselves where their own cultural values need no longer be derided as savage and deformed.

Fernández Retamar's essay is synoptic yet retains a distinctively Cuban bent, illustrative of the diversity among the consistently adversarial readings of the play. For one thing, Cuba straddles the Caribbean and Latin America geographically and culturally, and Fernández Retamar's arguments are marked by this double affinity. His focus is hemispheric, and his Caliban, originally the victim of European conquistadors, now labors more directly under North American imperialism. And coming from a society where mulattos predominate, he instinctively defines “our America” as mestizaje, as culturally and ethnically mixed; the conflict between Prospero and Caliban is consequently seen in class rather than racial terms.32 Where for the negritudist Césaire Caliban had most emphatically to be black and Ariel, the favored servant and counterrevolutionary, to be mulatto (a correspondence between race and privilege native to Martinique and much of the formerly French and British Caribbean), for Fernández Retamar, the Ariel-Caliban split is predominantly one of class. The lofty Ariel is representative of the intellectual who must choose between collaborating with Prospero and deliberately allying himself with Caliban, the exploited proletarian who is to advance revolutionary change.

Lemuel Johnson's volume of poems, highlife for caliban (1973), marks the decline of The Tempest's value as an oppositional force in decolonizing cultures. Johnson writes out of the historical experience of Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, a forlorn city of slaves who had been liberated by Britain and had resettled there. Their freedom is announced but scarcely felt as such. The backdrop to the poems is neocolonial: Caliban is now head of state, but his nationalist ideals have become corrupted and enfeebled by power. By the same token, he has experienced the gulf between formal independence and authentic autonomy, as his nation remains in Prospero's cultural and economic thrall and the final exorcism of the master seems improbable. This condition is psychologically dissipating, for “it is the neocolonial event that finally divests Caliban of that which had kept him whole—a dream of revenge against Prospero. But how shall he now revenge himself upon himself?”33

The Tempest's value for African and Caribbean intellectuals faded once the plot ran out. The play lacks a sixth act which might have been enlisted for representing relations among Caliban, Ariel, and Prospero once they entered a postcolonial era, or rather (in Harry Magdoff's phrase), an era of “imperialism without colonies.”34 Over time, Caliban's recovery of his island has proved a qualified triumph, with the autonomy of his emergent nation far more compromised than was imagined by the generation of more optimistic nationalists—politicians and writers alike—who saw independence in. Third Worlders have found it difficult to coax from the play analogies with these new circumstances wherein Prospero, having officially relinquished authority over the island, so often continues to manage it from afar.

With the achievement of formal independence, the anticolonial spirit of insurrection has been dampened and the assertive calls to reconstruct endemic cultures attenuated. By the early seventies the generation of more idealistic (and often more literary) leaders who bridged the periods pre- and postindependence was being replaced by a cohort of Third World leaders who in power have become preoccupied, as Edward Said has noted, primarily with technocratic concerns and defense.35 Issues of national or racial identity have largely been superseded by issues of survival. In this climate, Shakespeare's play has been drained of the immediate, urgent value it was once found to have, and the moment has passed when a man like Lamming could assert so sanguinely that “The Tempest was also prophetic of a political future which is our present. Moreover, the circumstances of my life, both as a colonial and exiled descendant of Caliban in the twentieth century, is an example of that prophecy” (PE, p. 13). The play's declining pertinence to contemporary Africa and the Caribbean has been exacerbated by the difficulty of wresting from it any role for female defiance or leadership in a period when protest is coming increasingly from that quarter. Given that Caliban is without a female counterpart in his oppression and rebellion, and given the largely autobiographical cast of African and Caribbean appropriations of the play, it follows that all the writers who quarried from The Tempest an expression of their lot should have been men. This assumption of heroic revolt as a preeminently male province is most palpable in Fernández Retamar's inclusion of only one woman in his list of thirty-five activists and intellectuals who exemplify the Calibanesque.

Between the late fifties and early seventies The Tempest was valued and competed for both by those (in the “master”-culture's terms) traditionally possessed of discrimination and those traditionally discriminated against. On the one hand, a broad evaluative agreement existed between the two sets of feuding cultures, the colonizers and the colonized both regarding the play highly. On the other hand, the two groups brought utterly different social ambitions to bear on the play. Writers and intellectuals from the colonies appropriated The Tempest in a way that was outlandish in the original sense of the word. They reaffirmed the play's importance from outside its central tradition not passively or obsequiously, but through what may best be described as a series of insurrectional endorsements. For in that turbulent and intensely reactive phase of Caribbean and African history, The Tempest came to serve as a Trojan horse, whereby cultures barred from the citadel of “universal” Western values could win entry and assail those global pretensions from within.


  1. George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (New York, 1984), p. 27; all further references to this work, abbreviated PE, will be included in the text.

  2. See Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, La Reproduction: Eléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement (Paris, 1970), and Bourdieu, La Distinction: Critique sociale du jugement (Paris, 1979); Barbara Herrnstein Smith, “Contingencies of Value,” Critical Inquiry 10 (Sept. 1983): 1-35; Tony Bennett, Formalism and Marxism (London, 1979), “Formalism and Marxism Revisited,” Southern Review 16 (1982): 3-21, and “Really Useless ‘Knowledge’: A Political Critique of Aesthetics,” Thesis 11 12 (1985): 28-52.

  3. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York, 1968), p. 43.

  4. Jean-Paul Sartre, preface, ibid., p. 9.

  5. Ibid., p. 16.

  6. Shakespeare's debt to the Bermuda pamphlets and other Elizabethan accounts of the New World has been extensively analyzed, often in relation to the evolution of British colonial discourse in the seventeenth century. See especially Frank Kermode, introduction to The Tempest (New York, 1954), pp. xxv-xxxiv; Stephen J. Greenblatt, “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century,” in First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, ed. Fredi Chiappelli, 2 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1976), 2:561-80; Leslie A. Fiedler, “The New World Savage as Stranger: Or, ‘’Tis new to thee,’” The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York, 1972), pp. 199-253; Peter Hulme, “Hurricanes in the Caribbees: The Constitution of the Discourse of English Colonialism,” in 1642: Literature and Power in the Seventeenth Century: Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature, July 1980, ed. Francis Barker et al. (Colchester, 1981), pp. 55-83; Barker and Hulme, “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London, 1985), pp. 191-205; and Paul Brown, “‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), pp. 48-71.

  7. Roberto Fernández Retamar, “Caliban: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America,” trans. Lynn Garafola, David Arthur McMurray, and Robert Marquez, Massachusetts Review 15 (Winter/Spring 1974): 27; all further references to this work, abbreviated “C,” will be included in the text.

  8. Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28 (Spring 1984): 128.

  9. Ian Munro and Reinhard Sander, eds., Kas-Kas: Interviews with Three Caribbean Writers in Texas: George Lamming, C. L. R. James, Wilson Harris (Austin, Tex., 1972), p. 6. For kindred treatments of the way British-centered curricula generated mimicry and cultural dependency in the former British West Indies, see Austin Clarke, Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack: A Memoir (Toronto, 1980), and Chris Searle, The Forsaken Lover: White Words and Black People (London, 1972).

  10. Trevor R. Griffiths, “‘This Island's Mine’: Caliban and Colonialism,” Yearbook of English Studies 13 (1983): 159-80. Although Griffiths does not tackle the question of value directly, his essay complements mine insofar as it focuses on how The Tempest was appropriated not in the colonies but in Britain. Griffiths' analysis treats both the heyday of imperialism and the subsequent retreat from empire. For discussion of how The Tempest was taken up from the seventeenth century onward, see Ruby Cohn, Modern Shakespeare Offshoots (Princeton, N.J., 1976), pp. 267-309. Cohn's account of the two adaptations of the play by the nineteenth-century French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan is especially comprehensive.

  11. Daniel Wilson, Caliban: The Missing Link (London, 1873), p. 79.

  12. W. T. Stead, “First Impressions of the Theatre,” Review of Reviews 30 (Oct. 1904); quoted in Griffiths, “‘This Island's Mine,’” p. 170.

  13. [Dominique] O. Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, trans. Pamela Powesland (New York, 1964), p. 34; all further references to this work, abbreviated PC, will be included in the text. The centrality of The Tempest to Mannoni's theory was given added emphasis by the extended title of the English translation.

  14. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, act 1, sc. 2, ll. 332-44; all further references to the play will be included in the text.

  15. See Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris, 1952), and Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme, 3d ed. (Paris, 1955). See also the section, “Caliban on the Couch,” in O. Onoge, “Revolutionary Imperatives in African Sociology,” in African Social Studies: A Radical Reader, ed. Peter C. W. Gutkind and Peter Waterman (New York, 1977), pp. 32-43.

  16. Philip Mason, Prospero's Magic: Some Thoughts on Class and Race (London, 1962), p. 80; all further references to this work, abbreviated PM, will be included in the text.

  17. Though it is underscored by a different politics, Sartre makes a related remark in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth: “We in Europe too are being decolonized: that is to say that the settler which is in every one of us is being savagely rooted out” (Sartre, preface, p. 24).

  18. For a thematic rather than a historical survey of the figure of Caliban in Third World writing, see Charlotte H. Bruner, “The Meaning of Caliban in Black Literature Today,” Comparative Literature Studies 13 (Sept. 1976): 240-53.

  19. See C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York, 1963).

  20. Given the antipathy between Trinidadian-born V. S. Naipaul and the more radical Lamming, and given Lamming's identification with Caliban, it is probable that Naipaul had the Barbadian in mind in his fictional A Flag on the Island, where the narrator parodies Caribbean celebrations of Caliban by citing a local autobiography, I Hate You: One Man's Search for Identity, which opens: “‘I am a man without identity. Hate has consumed my identity. My personality has been distorted by hate. My hymns have not been hymns of praise, but of hate. How terrible to be Caliban, you say. But I say, how tremendous. Tremendousness is therefore my unlikely subject’” (Naipaul, A Flag on the Island [London, 1967], p. 154).

  21. Cf. the remark by Chris Searle, another writer who reads Caribbean culture through the Prospero-Caliban dichotomy: “The ex-master's language … is still the currency of communication which buys out the identity of the child as soon as he begins to acquire it” (Searle, The Forsaken Lover, p. 29).

  22. See Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, and Césaire, Toussaint Louverture: la révolution francaise et le problème colonial (Paris, 1961).

  23. Janheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature: A History of Black Writing, trans. Oliver Coburn and Ursula Lehrburger (New York, 1969), p. 242.

  24. Césaire, quoted in S. Belhassen, “Aimé Césaire's A Tempest,” in Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. Lee Baxandall (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 176.

  25. For the fullest discussion concerning Césaire's Africanizing of Shakespeare, see Thomas A. Hale, “Aimé Césaire: His Literary and Political Writings with a Bio-bibliography” (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1974), and “Sur Une tempête d’Aimé Césaire,” Etudes Littéraires 6 (1973): 21-34.

  26. Césaire, Une Tempête: D’après “la Tempête” de Shakespeare—Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre (Paris, 1969), p. 24.

  27. Ibid., p. 92.

  28. See Fernández Retamar, “Cuba Hasta Fidel,” Bohemia 61 (19 September 1969): 84-97, and “Caliban: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America”; Lamming, Water with Berries (London, 1971); Edward Braithwaite, Islands (London, 1969), pp. 34-38; John Pepper Clark, “The Legacy of Caliban,” Black Orpheus 2 (Feb. 1968): 16-39; Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, “Towards a National Culture,” Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (Westport, Conn., 1983); David Wallace, Do You Love Me Master? (Lusaka, 1977). In Lamming's allegorical novel, Caliban resurfaces in the form of three West Indian artists who reside in London and collectively play out the dilemmas of colonizer-colonized entanglements during the era of decolonization. Clark's reflections turn on the relation between “the colonial flag and a cosmopolitan language.” Clark both follows and reroutes Lamming's insights on this subject as, unlike his Caribbean predecessor, he approaches English from an African perspective, that is, as a second language. Ngugi's essay, published in 1972, was originally delivered at a conference in 1969. In it he assails Prospero for first dismantling Caliban's heritage and then denying that such a culture ever existed. Ngugi proceeds to sketch strategies for reaffirming the value of that damaged inheritance, notably by decolonizing language and education. Wallace's play was first performed in 1971. Regional nuances aside, Do You Love Me Master? is much of a piece with trends already discussed: aided by rioting prisoners, Caliban, a cursing Zambian “houseboy,” drives the “bossman,” Prospero, out of the country. In the final scene Prospero's stick, more truncheon than wand, is broken, and the crowd encircles the master shouting “Out, out!” and waves banners proclaiming freedom. The play incorporates songs in three African languages.

  29. Braithwaite, “Caliban,” Islands, p. 36.

  30. The strong historical presence of Martí in the essay is redoubled by Fernández Retamar's invocation, from the same era, of José Enrique Rodó's Ariel. Published in 1900, this Uruguayan novel was written in direct response to the 1898 American intervention in Cuba. Rodó identifies Latin America with Ariel, not Caliban.

  31. The European suspicion that colonized people would treat Shakespeare with, to invoke Fernández Retamar's phrase, “presumed barbarism” was starkly evident when the Parisian critics dismissed Césaire's Une Tempête as a “betrayal” of the bard. See Hale, “Sur Une Tempête d’Aimé Césaire,” p. 21.

  32. See Marta E. Sánchez, “Caliban: The New Latin-American Protagonist of The Tempest,Diacritics 6 (Spring 1976): 54-61.

  33. Sylvia Wynter, “Afterword,” in Lemuel Johnson, highlife for caliban (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1973), p. 137.

  34. Harry Magdoff, “Imperialism without Colonies,” in Studies in the Theory of Imperialism, ed. Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe (New York, 1972), pp. 144-70.

  35. See Edward Said, “In the Shadow of the West,” Wedge 7/8 (Winter/Spring 1985), p. 10.

Ronald Takaki (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “The Tempest in the Wilderness: The Racialization of Savagery,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 3, December, 1992, pp. 892-912.

[In the following essay, Takaki probes The Tempest's relation to the English colonization of America, interpreting Caliban as representative of a “savage” American Indian figure.]

“O brave new world that has such people in’t,” they heard Miranda exclaim. It was 1611 and London theatergoers were attending the first performance of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. In the early seventeenth century, the English were encountering what they viewed as strange inhabitants in new lands. Those experiences determined the meaning of the utterances they heard. A perspicacious few in the audience could have seen that this play was more than a story about how Prospero was sent into exile with his daughter, Miranda, took possession of an island inhabited by Caliban, and redeemed himself by marrying Miranda to the king's son.1

Indeed, The Tempest can be approached as a fascinating tale about the creation of a new society in America. Seen in that light, the play invites us to view English expansion not only as imperialism but also as a defining moment in the making of an English-American identity based on race. For the first time in the English theater, an Indian character was being presented. What did Shakespeare and his audience know about the native peoples of America, and what choices were they making when they characterized Caliban? Although they saw him as a “savage,” did they racialize savagery? Was the play a prologue for America?

The Tempest studied in relationship to its context can help us answer those questions. Othello also offers us an opportunity to analyze English racial attitudes, as Winthrop Jordan has demonstrated so brilliantly, but our play is a more important window for understanding American history, for its story is set in the New World. Moreover, the timing of that first performance of The Tempest was crucial: It came after the English invasion of Ireland but before the colonization of New England, after John Smith's arrival in Virginia but before the beginning of the tobacco economy, and after the first contacts with Indians but before full-scale warfare against them. In that historical moment, the English were encountering “other” peoples and delineating the boundary between civilization and savagery. The social constructions of both those terms were dynamically developing in three sites—Ireland, Virginia, and New England.2

One of the places the English were colonizing in 1611 was Ireland, and Caliban seemed to resemble the Irish. Theatergoers were familiar with the “wild Irish” on stage, for such images had been presented in the plays Sir John Oldcastle (1599) and Honest Whore (1605). Seeking to conquer the Irish in 1395, Richard II had condemned them as “savage Irish, our enemies.” In the mid-sixteenth century, the government had decided to bring all of Ireland under its rule, and to that end, it encouraged private colonization projects.3

Like Caliban, the Irish were viewed as “savages,” a people living outside of “civilization.” They had tribal organizations, and their practice of herding seemed nomadic. Even their Christianity was said to be merely the exterior of strongly rooted paganism. “They are all Papists by their profession,” claimed Edmund Spenser in 1596, “but in the same so blindly and brutishly informed for the most part as that you would rather think them atheists or infidels.” To the English colonists, it seemed that the Irish lacked “knowledge of God or good manners.” They had no sense of private property and did not “plant any Gardens or Orchards, Inclose or improve their lands, live together in settled Villages or Townes.” The Irish were described as lazy, “naturally” given to “idleness,” and unwilling to work for “their own bread.” Dominated by “innate sloth,” “loose, barbarous and most wicked,” and living “like beasts,” they were also thought to be criminals, an underclass inclined to steal from the English. The colonists complained that the Irish savages were not satisfied with the “fruit of the natural unlaboured earth” and therefore continually “invaded the fertile possessions” of the “English Pale.”4

The English colonizers established a two-tiered social structure. According to sixteenth-century English law, “every Irishman shall be forbidden to wear English apparel or weapon upon pain of death. That no Irishman, born of Irish race and brought up Irish, shall purchase land, bear office, be chosen of any jury or admitted witness in any real or personal action.” To reinforce this social separation, British laws prohibited marriages between the Irish and the colonizers. The new world order was to be one of English over Irish.5

The Irish also became targets of English violence. “Nothing but fear and force can teach duty and obedience” to this “rebellious people,” the invaders insisted. The sixteenth-century English were generally brutal in waging war, but they seemed to have been particularly cruel toward the Irish. The colonizers burned the villages and crops of the inhabitants and relocated them on reservations. They slaughtered families, “man, woman and child,” justifying their atrocities by arguing that families provided support for the rebels. After four years of bloody warfare in Munster, according to Edmund Spenser, the Irish had been reduced to wretchedness. “Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs would not bear them. They looked anatomies of death; they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves.” The death toll was so high that “in short space there were none almost left and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man and beast.” The “void” meant vacant lands for English resettlement.6

The invaders took the heads of the slain Irish as trophies. Sir Humphrey Gilbert pursued a campaign of terror: He ordered that “the heads of all those … killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies and brought to the place where he encamped at night, and should there be laid on the ground by each side of the way leading into his own tent so that none could come into his tent for any cause but commonly he must pass through a lane of heads. … [It brought] great terror to the people when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk, and friends.” After seeing the head of his lord impaled on the walls of Dublin, Irish poet Angus O’Daly cried out:

O body which I see without a head,
It is the sight of thee which has withered up my strength.
Divided and impaled in Ath-cliath,
The learned of Banba will feel its loss.
Who will relieve the wants of the poor?
Who will bestow cattle on the learned?
O body, since thou art without a head,
It is not life which we care to choose after thee.(7)

The English claimed that they had a God-given responsibility to “inhabit and reform so barbarous a nation” and to educate the Irish “brutes.” They would teach them to obey English laws and to stop “robbing and stealing and killing” one another. They would uplift this “most filthy people, utterly enveloped in vices, most untutored of all peoples in the rudiments of faith.” Thus, although they saw the Irish as savages and although they sometimes described this savagery as “natural” and “innate,” the English believed that the Irish could be civilized, improved through what Shakespeare called “nurture.” In short, the difference between the Irish and the English was a matter of culture.8

As their frontier advanced from Ireland to America, the English began making comparisons between the Irish and the Indian “savages” and wondering whether there might be different kinds of “savagery.”

The parallels between English expansionism in Ireland and that in America were apparent. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Lord De La Warr, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir Walter Raleigh—all participated both in invading Ireland and in colonizing the New World. The conquest of Ireland and the settlement of Virginia were bound so closely together that one correspondence, dated March 8, 1610, stated: “It is hoped the plantation of Ireland may shortly be settled. The Lord Delaware [Lord De La Warr] is preparing to depart for the plantation of Virginia.” Commander John Mason conducted military campaigns against the Irish before he sailed for New England, where he led troops against the Pequots of Connecticut. Samuel Gorton wrote a letter to John Winthrop, Jr., connecting the two frontiers: “I remember the time of the wars in Ireland (when I was young, in Queen Elizabeth's days of famous memory) where much English blood was spilt by a people much like unto these [Indians]. … And after these Irish were subdued by force, what treacherous and bloody massacres have they attempted is well known.”9

The first English colonizers in the New World found that the Indians reminded them of the Irish. Capt. John Smith observed that the deerskin robes worn by the Indians in Virginia did not differ much “in fashion from the Irish mantels.” Thomas Morton noticed that the “natives of New England [were] accustomed to build themselves houses much like the wild Irish.” Roger Williams reported that the thick woods and swamps of New England gave refuge to the warring Indians “like the bogs to the wild Irish.” Thus, in their early encounters, the English projected the familiar onto the strange, their images of the Irish onto the native people of America. Initially, “savagery” was defined in relationship to the Irish, and Indians were incorporated into this definition.10

The Tempest, the London audience knew, was not about Ireland but about the New World, for the reference to the “Bermoothes” (Bermuda) revealed the location of the island. What was happening on stage was a metaphor for English expansion into America. The play's title was inspired by a recent incident. Caught in a violent storm in 1609, the Sea Adventure had been separated from a fleet of ships bound for Virginia and had run aground in the Bermudas. Shakespeare knew many of the colonizers, including Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Lord De La Warr. One of his personal friends was the geographer Richard Hakluyt, author of widely read books about the New World. The future of Englishmen lay in America, proclaimed Hakluyt, as he urged them to “conquer a country” and “to man it, to plant it, and to keep it, and to continue the making of Wines and Oils able to serve England.”11

The description of the play's setting evoked the mainland near the “Bermoothes”—Virginia. “The air breathes upon us here most sweetly,” the theatergoers were told. “Here is everything advantageous to life.” “How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!” Impressed by the land's innocence, Gonzalo of The Tempest depicted it as an ideal commonwealth where everything was as yet unformed and unbounded, where letters, laws, metals, and occupations were yet unknown. Both the imagery and the language revealed America as the site of Prospero's landing: It was almost as if Shakespeare had lifted the material from contemporary documents about the New World. Tracts on Virginia had described the air as “most sweet” and as “virgin and temperate,” and its soil as “lusty” with meadows “full of green grass.” In A True Reportory of the Wracke, published in 1609, William Strachey depicted Virginia's abundance: “no Country yieldeth goodlier Corn, nor more manifold increase … we have thousands of goodly Vines.” Here was an opportunity for colonists to enhance the “fertility and pleasure” of Virginia by “cleansing away her woods” and converting her into “goodly meadow.”12

Moreover, the play provided a conclusive clue that the story was indeed about America: Caliban, one of the principal characters, was a New World inhabitant. “Carib,” the name of an Indian tribe, had come to mean a savage of America, and the term cannibal was a derivative. Shakespeare sometimes rearranged letters in words (“Amleth,” the name of a prince in a Viking tale, for example, became “Hamlet”), and here he had created another anagram in “Caliban.”13

The English had seen or read reports about Indians who had been captured and brought to London. Beginning with Christopher Columbus, European visitors to the New World had brought back Indians. Columbus himself had displayed Indians. During his first voyage, he wrote: “Yesterday came [to] the ship a dugout with six young men, and five came on board; these I ordered to be detained and I am bringing them.” When Columbus was received by the Spanish court after his triumphal return, he presented a collection of things he had brought back, including gold nuggets, parrots in cages, and six Indians. On his second voyage, in 1493, Columbus again sent his men to kidnap Indians. On one occasion, a captive had been “wounded seven times and his entrails were hanging out,” reported Guillermo Coma of Aragon. “Since it was thought that he could not be cured, he was cast into the sea. But keeping above water and raising one foot, he held on to his intenstines with his left hand and swam courageously to the shore. … The wounded Carib was caught again on shore. His hands and feet were bound more tightly and he was once again thrown headlong. But this resolute savage swam more furiously, until he was struck several times by arrows and perished.” When Columbus set sail with his fleet to return to Spain, he took 550 Indian captives with him. “When we reached the waters around Spain,” Michele de Cuneo wrote matter-of-factly, “about 200 of those Indians died, I believe because of the unaccustomed air, colder than theirs. We cast them into the sea.”14

English explorers also engaged in the practice of kidnapping Indians. When Capt. George Waymouth visited New England in 1605, he lured some Abenakis to his ship; taking three of them hostage, he sailed back to England to display them. An early seventeenth-century pamphlet stated that a voyage to Virginia was expected to bring back its quota of captured Indians: “Thus we shipped five savages, two canoes, with all their bows and arrows.” In 1614 the men on one of Capt. John Smith's ships captured several Indians on Cape Cod. “Thomas Hunt,” Smith wrote, “betrayed four and twenty of these poor savages aboard this ship, and most dishonestly and inhumanely … carried them with him to Maligo [Malaga] and there for a little private gain sold … those savages for Rials of eight.” In 1611, according to a biographer of William Shakespeare, “a native of New England called Epenew was brought to England … and ‘being a man of so great a stature’ was showed up and down London for money as a monster.” In The Tempest Stephano considered capturing Caliban: “If I can recover him, and keep him tame, and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor.” Such exhibitions of Indians were “profitable investments,” literary scholar Frank Kermode noted, and were “a regular feature of colonial policy under James I. The exhibits rarely survived the experience.”15

To the spectators of these “exhibits,” Indians personified “savagery.” They were depicted as “cruel, barbarous and most treacherous.” They were thought to be cannibals, “being most furious in their rage and merciless … not being content only to kill and take away life, but delight to torment men in the most bloody manner … flaying some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting off the members and joints of others by piecemeal and broiling on the coals, eating the collops of their flesh in their sight whilst they live.” According to Sir Walter Raleigh, Indians had “their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts.” In Nova Brittania, published in 1609, Richard Johnson described the Indians in Virginia as “wild and savage people,” living “like herds of deer in a forest.” One of their striking physical characteristics was their skin color. John Brereton described the New England Indians as “of tall stature, broad and grim visage, of a blacke swart complexion.”16

Indians seemed to lack everything the English identified as civilized—Christianity, cities, letters, clothing, and swords. “They do not bear arms or know them, for I showed to them swords and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance,” wrote Columbus in his journal, noting that the Indians did not have iron. George Waymouth tried to impress the Abenakis: He magnetized a sword “to cause them to imagine some great power in us; and for that to love and fear us.”17

Like Caliban, the native people of America were viewed as the other. European culture was delineating the border, the hierarchical division between civilization and wildness. Unlike Europeans, Indians were allegedly dominated by their passions, especially their sexuality. Amerigo Vespucci was struck by how the natives embraced and enjoyed the pleasures of their bodies: “They … are libidinous beyond measure, and the women far more than the men. … When they had the opportunity of copulating with Christians, urged by excessive lust, they defiled and prostituted themselves.” Caliban personified such passions. Prospero saw him as a sexual threat to the nubile Miranda, her “virgin-knot” yet unbroken. “I have used thee (filth as thou art) with humane care,” Prospero scolded Caliban, “and lodged thee in mine own cell till thou didst seek to violate the honor of my child.” And the unruly native snapped: “O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done! Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else this isle with Calibans.”18

To the theatergoers, Caliban represented what Europeans had been when they were lower on the scale of development toward civilization. To be civilized, they believed, required denial of wholeness—the repression of the instinctual forces of human nature. Prospero, personification of civilized man, identified himself as mind rather than body. His epistemology relied on the visual rather than the tactile and on the linear knowledge of books rather than the polymorphous knowledge of experience. With the self fragmented, Prospero was able to split off his rationality and raise it to authority over the other—the sensuous part of himself and everything Caliban represented.19

But could Caliban, the audience wondered, ever become Christian and civilized? The sixteenth-century Spanish lawyer Juan Gines de Sepulveda had justified the Spanish conquest of Indians by invoking Aristotle's doctrine that some people were “natural slaves.” The condition of slavery, Sepulveda argued, was natural for “persons of both inborn rudeness and of inhuman and barbarous customs.” Thus what counted was an ascriptive quality based on a group's nature, or “descent.”20

On the other hand, Pope Paul III had proclaimed that Indians as well as “all other people” who might later be “discovered” by “Christians” should not be deprived of their liberty and property, even though they were outside the Christian faith. Christopher Columbus had reported that Indians were “very gentle and without knowledge of … evil.” He added: “They love their neighbors as themselves, and have the sweetest talk in the world, and gentle, and always with a smile.” In the play, Gonzalo told theatergoers: “I saw such islanders … who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet, note, their manners are more gentle, kind, than of our human generation you shall find many—nay, almost any.” Thus, Indians were not always viewed as brutish by nature: Already capable of morality and gentleness, they could be acculturated, become civilized through “consent.”21

Indeed, Caliban seemed educable. Prospero had taught him a European language: “I … took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour one thing or other. When thou didst not, savage, know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like a thing most brutish.” Defiantly, the native retorted: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language.” A Virginia tract stated that the colonists should take Indian children and “train them up with gentleness, teach them our English tongue.” In the contract establishing the Virginia Company in 1606, the king endorsed a plan to propagate the “Christian Religion to such people” who as yet lived in “darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.” Three years later, the Virginia Company instructed the governor of the colony to encourage missionaries to convert Indian children. They should be taken from their parents if necessary, since the parents were “so wrapped up in the fog and misery of their iniquity.” A Virginia promotional tract stated that it was “not the nature of men, but the education of men” that made them “barbarous and uncivil.” Every man in the new colony had a duty to bring the savage Indians to “civil and Christian” government.22

In 1611 these cultural constructs of Indians were either the fantasy of Shakespeare or the impressions of policy makers and tract writers in London. What would happen to these images on the stage of history?

The first English settlement in the New World was in Virginia, the home of fourteen thousand Powhatans. An agricultural people, they cultivated corn—the mainstay of their subsistence. Their cleared fields were large—one-hundred-acre fields were not uncommon—and they lived in palisaded towns, with forts, storehouses, temples, and framed houses covered with bark and reed mats. They cooked their foods in ceramic pots and used woven baskets for storing corn; some of their baskets were constructed so skillfully they could carry water in them. The Powhatans had a sophisticated numbering system for evaluating their harvests. According to John Smith, they had numbers from one to ten, after which counting was done by tens to one hundred. There was a word for “one thousand.” The Powhatan calendar had five seasons: “Their winter some call Popanow, the spring Cattaapeuk, the sommer Cohattayough, the earing of their Corne Nepinough, the harvest and fall of the leafe Taquitock. From September until the midst of November are the chief Feasts and sacrifice.”23

In Virginia the initial encounters between the English and the Indians opened possibilities for friendship and interdependency. The first colonists arrived and set up camp in 1607. There were 120 of them. Then, John Smith reported, came “the starving time.” A year later, only 38 still lived, hanging precariously on the very edge of survival. The New World had been depicted as a garden; the reality of America was something else. Descriptions of its natural abundance turned out to have been exaggerated. Many of the English were not prepared for survival in the wilderness. “Now was all our provision spent … all help abandoned, each hour expecting the fury of the savages,” Smith wrote. Fortunately, in that “desperate extremity,” the Powhatans brought food to the starving strangers.24

A year later, several hundred more colonists arrived; again they quickly ran out of provisions. They were forced to eat “dogs, cats, rats, and mice,” even “corpses” dug from graves. “Some have licked up the blood which hath fallen from their weak fellows,” a survivor reported. “One [member] of our colony murdered his wife, ripped the child out of her womb and threw it into the river, and after chopped the mother in pieces and salted her for his food, the same not being discovered before he had eaten part thereof.” “So great was our famine,” John smith stated, “that a savage we slew and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and ate him; and so did diverse one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs.”25

Hostilities soon broke out as the English tried to extort food supplies by attacking the Indians and destroying their villages. In 1608 an Indian declared: “We hear you are come from under the World to take our World from us.” A year later Gov. Thomas Gates arrived in Virginia with instructions that the Indians should be forced to labor for the colonists and also make annual payments of corn and skins. The orders were brutally carried out. During one of the raids, the English soldiers attacked an Indian town, killing fifteen people and forcing many others to flee. Then they burned the houses and destroyed the cornfields. According to a report by Commander George Percy, they marched the captured queen and her children to the river where they “put the Children to death … by throwing them overboard and shooting out their brains in the water.”26

Indians began to doubt that the two peoples could live together in peace. One young Indian told Capt. John Smith: “[We] are here to intreat and desire your friendship and to enjoy our houses and plant our fields, of whose fruits you shall participate.” But he did not trust the strangers: “We perceive and well know you intend to destroy us.” Chief Powhatan had come to the same conclusion; he told Smith that the English were not in Virginia to trade but to “invade” and “possess” Indian lands.27

Indeed, Smith and his fellow colonists were encouraged by their culture of expansionism to claim entitlement to the land. In The Tempest the theatergoers were told by Sebastian: “I think he [the king of Naples] will carry this island home in his pocket and give it his son for an apple.” Prospero declared that he had been thrust forth from Milan and “most strangely” landed on this shore “to be the lord on’t.” Projecting his personal plans and dreams onto the wilderness, he colonized the island and dispossessed Caliban. Feeling robbed, Caliban protested: “As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer, that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.” But the English did not see their taking of the land as robbery. In Utopia (1516), written almost one hundred years before English colonization of America began in earnest, Sir Thomas More had provided a rationale for the appropriation of Indian lands: Since the natives did not “use” the soil but left it “idle and waste,” the English had “just cause” to drive them from the territory by force. In 1609 Robert Gray declared that “the greater part” of the earth was “possessed and wrongfully usurped by wild beasts … or by brutish savages.” A Virginia pamphlet argued that it was “not unlawful” for the English to possess “part” of the Indians' land.28

But the English soon wanted more than just a “part” of Indian territory. Their need for land was suddenly intensified by a new development—the cultivation of tobacco as an export crop. In 1613 the colony sent its first shipment of tobacco to London, a small but significant four barrels' worth. The exports grew dramatically: 2,300 pounds in 1616, 19,000 the following year, 60,000 by 1620. The colonists increasingly coveted Indian lands, especially already cleared fields. Tobacco agriculture stimulated not only territorial expansion but also immigration. During the “Great Migration” of 1618-1623, the colony grew from 400 to 4,500 people.

In 1622 the natives tried to drive out the intruders, killing some three hundred colonists. John Smith denounced the “massacre” and described the “savages” as “cruel beasts,” who possessed “a more unnatural brutishness” than wild animals. The English deaths, Samuel Purchas argued, established the colonists' right to the land: “Their carcasses, the dispersed bones of their countrymen … speak, proclaim and cry, This our earth is truly English, and therefore this Land is justly yours O English.” Their blood had watered the soil, entitling them to the land. “We, who hitherto have had possession of no more ground than their [Indian] waste, and our purchase … may now by right of War, and law of Nations,” the colonists declared, “invade the Country, and destroy them who sought to destroy us.” They felt they could morally sweep away their enemies and even take their developed lands. “We shall enjoy their cultivated places. … Now their cleared grounds in all their villages (which are situated in the fruitfulest places of the land) shall be inhabited by us.”29

In their fierce counterattack, the English waged total war. “Victory may be gained in many ways,” a colonist declared: “by force, by surprise, by famine in burning their Corn, by destroying and burning their Boats, Canoes, and Houses … by pursuing and chasing them with our horses, and blood-hounds to draw after them, and mastives to tear them.” In 1623 Capt. William Tucker led his soldiers to a Powhatan village, presumably to negotiate a peace treaty. After he concluded the treaty, he persuaded the Indians to drink a toast, serving them poisoned wine. An estimated two hundred Indians died instantly; Tucker's soldiers then killed another fifty and “brought home part of their heads.” In 1629, a colonist reported, the English forced hostile Indians to seek peace by “continual incursions” and by “yearly cutting down, and spoiling their corn.” The goal of the war was to “root out [the Indians] from being any longer a people.”30

What happened in Virginia, while terrible and brutal, was still based largely on the view that Indian “savagery” was cultural. Like the Irish, Indians were identified as brutal and backward, but they were not yet seen as incapable of becoming civilized because of their race, or “descent.” Their heathenism had not yet been indelibly attached to distinctive physical characteristics such as their skin color. So far at least, “consent” was possible for Indians. What occurred in New England was a different story, however, and here again The Tempest was preview.31

Although the theatergoers were given the impression that Caliban could be acculturated, they also received a diametrically opposite construction of his racial character. They were told that Caliban was “a devil, a born devil” and that he belonged to a “vile race.” “Descent” was determinative: his birthmark signified an inherent moral defect. On the stage, they saw Caliban, with long shaggy hair, personifying the Indian. He had distinct racial markers. “Freckled,” covered with brown spots, he was “not honored with human shape.” Called a “fish,” he was mockingly told: “Thy eyes are almost set in thy head.” “Where should they be set else? He were a brave monster indeed if they were set in his tail.” More important, his distinctive physical characteristics signified intellectual incapacity. Caliban was “a thing of darkness” whose “nature nurture [could] never stick.” In other words, he had natural qualities that precluded the possibility of becoming civilized through “nurture,” or education. The racial distance between Caliban and Prospero was inscribed geographically. Prospero forced the native to live on a reservation located in a barren region. “Here you sty me in this hard rock,” he complained, “whiles you do keep from me the rest o’ the island.” Prospero justified this segregation, charging that the “savage” possessed distasteful qualities “which good natures could not abide to be with. Therefore wast thou deservedly confined into this rock, who hadst deserved more than a prison.” The theatergoers saw Caliban's sty located emblematically at the back of the stage, behind Prospero's “study,” signifying a hierarchy of white over dark and cerebral over carnal.32

This deterministic view of Caliban's racial character would be forged in the crucible of New England. Five years after the first performance of The Tempest, Capt. John Smith sailed north from Virginia to explore the New England coast; again he found not wild men but farmers. The “paradise” of Massachusetts, he reported, was “all planted with corn, groves, mulberries, savage gardens.” “The sea Coast as you pass shews you all along large Corne fields.” Indeed, while the Abenakis of Maine were mainly hunters and food gatherers dependent on the natural abundance of the land, the tribes in southern New England were horticultural. For example, the Wampanoags, whom the Pilgrims encountered in 1620, were a farming people, with a political system of governance and representation as well as a division of labor with workers specializing in arrow making, woodwork, and leathercraft.33

The Wampanoags as well as the Pequots, Massachusets, Nausets, Nipmucks, and Narragansets cultivated corn. As the main source of life for these tribes, corn was the focus of many legends. A Narraganset belief told how a crow had brought this grain to New England: “These Birds, although they do the corn also some hurt, yet scarce one Native amongst a hundred will kill them, because they have a tradition, that the Crow brought them at first an Indian Grain of Corn in one Ear, and an Indian or French bean in another, from the Great God Kautantouwits field in the Southwest from whence … came all their Corn and Beans.” A Penobscot account celebrated the gift of Corn Mother. During a time of famine, an Indian woman fell in love with a snake in the forest. Her secret was discovered one day by her husband, and she told him that she had been chosen to save the tribe. She instructed him to kill her with a stone axe and then drag her body through a clearing. “After seven days he went to the clearing and found the corn plant rising above the ground. … When the corn had born fruit and the silk of the corn ear had turned yellow he recognized in it the resemblance of his dead wife. Thus originated the cultivation of corn.”34

These Indians had a highly developed agricultural system. Samuel de Champlain found that “all along the shore” there was “a great deal of land cleared up and planted with Indian corn.” Describing their agricultural practices, he wrote: “They put in each hill three or four Brazilian beans [kidney beans]. … When they grow up, they interlace with the corn … and they keep the ground very free from weeds. We saw there many squashes, and pumpkins, and tobacco, which they likewise cultivate.” Thomas Morton noted the Indian practice of “dung[ing] their ground” with fish to fertilize the soil and increase the harvest. After visiting the Narragansets in Rhode Island, John Winthrop, Jr., noted that, although the soil in that region was “sandy & rocky,” the people were able to raise “good corn without fish” by rotating their crops. “They have every one 2 fields,” he observed, “which after the first 2 years they let one field rest each year, & that keeps their ground continually [productive].” According to Roger Williams, when the Indians were ready to harvest the corn, “all the neighbours men and women, forty, fifty, a hundred,” joined in the work and came “to help freely.” During their green corn festival, the Narragansets erected a long house, “sometimes a hundred, sometimes two hundred feet long upon a plain near the Court … where many thousands, men and women” gathered. Inside, dancers gave money, coats, and knives to the poor. After the harvest, the Indians stored their corn for the winter. “In the sand on the slope of hills,” according to Champlain, “they dig holes, some five or six feet, more or less, and place their corn and other grains in large grass sacks, which they throw into the said holes, and cover them with sand to a depth of three or four feet above the surface of the ground. They take away their grain according to their need, and it is preserved as well as it be in our granaries.” Contrary to the stereotype of Indians as hunters and therefore savages, these Indians were farmers.35

However, many colonists in New England disregarded this reality and invented their own representations of Indians. What emerged to justify dispossessing them was the racialization of Indian “savagery.” The Indians' heathenism and alleged laziness came to be viewed as inborn group traits that rendered them naturally incapable of civilization. This process of dehumanizing the Indians developed a peculiarly New England dimension as the colonists associated Indians with the devil. Indian identity became then a matter of “descent”: Their racial markers indicated ineradicable qualities of savagery.

This social construction of race occurred within the economic context of competition over land. The colonists argued that only those who used the land were entitled to it. Native men, they claimed, pursued “no kind of labour but hunting, fishing and fowling.” Indians were not producers. “The Indians are not able to make use of the one fourth part of the Land,” argued the Puritan minister Francis Higginson in 1630, “neither have they any settled places, as Towns to dwell in, nor any ground as they challenge for their owne possession, but change their habitation from place to place.” In the Puritan view, Indians were lazy. “Fettered in the chains of idleness,” they would rather starve than work, complained William Wood of the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1634. Indians were sinfully squandering America's resources. Under their irresponsible guardianship, the land had become “all spoils, rots,” and was “marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, etc.” Like the “foxes and wild beasts,” Indians did nothing “but run over the grass.”36

The Puritan possession of Indian lands was facilitated by the invasion of unseen pathogens. When the colonists began arriving in New England, they found that the Indian population was already being reduced by European diseases. Two significant events had occurred in the early seventeenth century: Infected rats swam to shore from Samuel de Champlain's ships, and some sick French sailors were shipwrecked on the beaches of New England. By 1616 epidemics were ravaging Indian villages. Victims of “virgin soil epidemics,” the Indians lacked immunological defenses against the newly introduced diseases. Between 1610 and 1675, the Indian population declined sharply—from 12,000 to a mere 3,000 for the Abenakis and from 65,000 to 10,000 for the southern tribes.37

Describing the sweep of deadly diseases among the Indians, William Bradford reported that the Indians living near the trading house at Plymouth “fell sick of the small pox, and died most miserably.” The condition of those still alive was “lamentable.” Their bodies were covered with “the pox breaking and mattering and running one into another, their skin cleaving” to the mats beneath them. When the sick Indians turned over, “whole sides” of their skin flayed off. In this terrible way, they died “like rotten sheep.” After one epidemic, Bradford recorded in his diary: “For it pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness and such a mortality that of a thousand, above nine and a half hundred of them died, and many of them did rot above ground for want of burial.”38

Leaders of the Massachusetts Bay colony interpreted these Indian deaths as divinely sanctioned opportunities to take the land. John Winthrop declared that the decimation of Indians by smallpox manifested a Puritan destiny: God was “making room” for the colonists and “hath hereby cleared our title to this place.” After an epidemic had swept through Indian villages, John Cotton claimed that the destruction was a sign from God: When the Lord decided to transplant his people, he made the country vacant for them to settle. Edward Johnson pointed out that epidemics had desolated “those places, where the English afterward planted.”39

Indeed, many New England towns were founded on the very lands the Indians had used before the epidemics killed them. The Plymouth colony itself was located on the site of the Wampanoag village of Pawtuxet. The Pilgrims had noticed that the village was empty and the cornfields overgrown with weeds. “There is a great deal of Land cleared,” one of them reported, “and hath beene planted with Corne three or foure yeares agoe.” The original inhabitants had been decimated by the epidemic of 1616. “Thousands of men have lived there, which died in a great plague not long since,” another Pilgrim wrote; “and pity it was and is to see so many goodly fields, and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same.” During their first spring, the Pilgrims went out into those fields to weed and manure them. Fortunately, they had some corn seed to plant. Earlier, when they landed on Cape Cod, they had come across some Indian graves and found caches of corn. They considered this find, wrote Bradford, as “a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that here they got seed to plant them corn the next year, or else they might have starved.” The pallid strangers probably would have perished had it not been for the seeds they found stored in the Indian burial grounds. Ironically, Indian death came to mean life for the Pilgrims.40

However, the Puritans did not see it as irony but as the destruction of devils. They had demonized the native peoples, condemning Indian religious beliefs as “diabolical, and so uncouth, as if … framed and devised by the devil himself.” In 1652 Thomas Mayhew, who was a missionary to the Wampanoags of Martha's Vineyard, wrote that they were “mighty zealous and earnest in the Worship of False gods and Devils.” They were under the influence of “a multitude of Heathen Traditions of their gods … and abounding with sins.”41

To the colonists, the Indians were not merely a wayward people: They personified something fearful within Puritan society itself. Like Caliban, a “born devil,” Indians failed to control their appetites, to create boundaries separating mind from body. They represented what English men and women in America thought they were not and, more important, what they must not become. As exiles living in the wilderness far from “civilization,” the English used their negative images of Indians to delineate the moral requirements they had set up for themselves. As sociologist Kai Erikson explains, “deviant forms of behavior, by marking the outer edges of group life, give the inner structure its special character and thus supply the framework within which the people of the group develop an orderly sense of their own cultural identity. … One of the surest ways to confirm an identity, for communities as well as for individuals, is to find some way of measuring what one is not.” By depicting Indians as demonic and savage, the colonists, like Prospero, were able to define more precisely what they perceived as the danger of becoming Calibanized.42

The Indians presented a frightening threat to the Puritan errand in America. “The wilderness through which we are passing to the Promised Land is all over fill’d with fiery flying serpents,” warned the Puritan minister Cotton Mather in 1692. “Our Indian wars are not over yet.” The wars were now within Puritan society and the self; the dangers were internal. Self-vigilance against sin was required, or else the English would become like Indians. “We have too far degenerated into Indian vices. The vices of the Indians are these: They are very lying wretches, and they are very lazy wretches; and they are out of measure indulgent unto their children; there is no family government among them. We have [become] shamefully Indianized in all those abominable things.”43

To be “Indianized” meant to serve the Devil. Cotton Mather thought this had happened to Mercy Short, a young girl who had been a captive of the Indians and who was suffering from tormenting fits. According to Mather, Short had seen the Devil. “Hee was not of a Negro, but of a Tawney, or an Indian colour,” she said; “he wore an high-crowned Hat, with straight Hair; and had one Cloven-foot.” During a witchcraft trial, Mather reported, George Burroughs had lifted an extremely heavy object with the help to the Devil, who resembled an Indian. Puritan authorities hanged an Englishwoman for worshipping Indian “gods” and for taking the Indian devil-god Hobbamock for a husband. Significantly, the Devil was portrayed as dark-complected and Indian.44

For the Puritan, to become Indian was the ultimate horror, for they believed Indians were “in very great subjection” to the Devil, who “kept them in a continual slavish fear of him.” Governor Bradford harshly condemned Thomas Morton and his fellow prodigals of the Merrymount settlement for their promiscuous partying with Indians: “They also set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies.” Interracial cavorting threatened to fracture a cultural and moral border—the frontier of Puritan identity. Congress of bodies, white and “tawney,” signified defilement, a frightful boundlessness. If the Puritans were to become wayward like the Indians, it would mean that they had succumbed to savagery and failed to shrivel the sensuous parts of the self. To be “Indianized” meant to be de-civilized, to become wild men.45

But they could not allow this to happen, for they were embarking on an errand to transform the wilderness into civilization. “The whole earth is the Lord's garden and he hath given it to the sons of men [to] increase and multiply and replentish the earth and subdue it,” asserted John Winthrop in 1629 as he prepared to sail for New England. “Why then should we stand starving here for the places of habitation … and in the meantime suffer a whole Continent as fruitful and convenient for the use of man to lie waste without any improvement.”46

Actually, Indians had been farming the land, and this reality led to conflicts over resources. Within ten years after the arrival of Winthrop's group, twenty thousand more colonists came to New England. This growing English population had to be squeezed into a limited area of arable land. Less than twenty percent of New England was useful for agriculture, and the Indians had already established themselves on the prime lands. Consequently, the colonists often settled on or directly next to Indian communities. In the Connecticut Valley, for example, they erected towns such as Springfield (1636), Northhampton (1654), Hadley (1661), Deerfield (1673), and Northfield (1673) adjacent to the Indian agricultural clearings at Agawam, Norwottuck, Pocumtuck, and Squakheag.47

Over the years, the expansion of English settlement sometimes led to wars that literally made the land “vacant.” During the Pequot War of 1637, some seven hundred Pequots were killed by the colonists and their Indian allies. Describing the massacre at Fort Mystic, an English officer wrote: “Many were burnt in the fort, both men, women, and children. … There were about four hundred souls in this fort, and not above five of them escaped out of our hands. Great and doleful was the bloody sight.” Commander John Mason explained that God had pushed the Pequots into a “fiery oven,” “filling the place with dead bodies.” By explaining their atrocities as divinely driven, the English were sharply inscribing the Indians as a race of devils. This was what happened during King Philip's War of 1675-1676. About a thousand English were killed during this conflict, and over six thousand Indians died from combat and disease. Altogether about half of the total Indian population had been destroyed in southern New England. Again, the colonists quickly justified their violence by demonizing their enemies. The Indians, Increase Mather observed, were “so Devil driven as to begin an unjust and bloody war upon the English, which issued in their speedy and utter extirpation from the face of God's earth.” Cotton Mather explained that the war was a conflict between the devil and God: “The Devil decoyed those miserable savages [to New England] in hopes that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would never come here to destroy or disturb His absolute empire over them.”48

Indians, “such people” of this “brave new world,” to use Shakespeare's words, personified the devil and everything the Puritans feared—the body, sexuality, laziness, sin, and the loss of self-control. They had no place in a “new England.” This was the view trumpeted by Edward Johnson in his Wonder-Working Providence. Where there had originally been “hideous Thickets” for wolves and bears, he proudly exclaimed in 1654, there were now streets “full of Girls and Boys sporting up and down, with a continued concourse of people.” Initially, the colonists themselves had lived in “wigwams” like Indians, but now they had “orderly, fair, and well-built houses … together with Orchards filled with goodly fruit trees, and gardens with variety of flowers.” The settlers had fought against the devil who had inhabited the bodies of the Indians, Johnson observed, and made it impossible for the soldiers to pierce them with their swords. But the English had violently triumphed. They had also expanded the market, making New England a center of production and trade. The settlers had turned “this Wilderness” into “a mart.” Merchants from Holland, France, Spain, and Portugal were coming to it. “Thus,” proclaimed Johnson, “hath the Lord been pleased to turn one of the most hideous, boundless, and unknown Wildernesses in the world in an instant … to a well-ordered Commonwealth.”49

But all of these developments had already been acted out in The Tempest. Like Prospero, the English colonists had sailed to a new land, and like him, many of them felt they were exiles. They viewed the native peoples as savages, as Calibans. The strangers occupied the land, believing they were entitled to be “the lord on’t.”50

The English possessed tremendous power to define the places and peoples they were conquering. As they made their way westward, they developed an ideology of “savagery,” which was given form and content by the political and economic circumstances of the specific sites of colonization. Initially, in Ireland, the English had viewed savagery as something cultural, or a matter of “consent.” They assumed that the distance between themselves and the Irish, or between civilization and savagery, was quantitative rather than qualitative. The Irish as “other” were educable: They were capable of acquiring the traits of civilization. But later as colonization reached across the Atlantic and as the English encountered a new group of people, many of them believed that savagery for the Indians might be inherent. Perhaps the Indians might be different from the English in kind rather than degree; if so, then the native people of America might be incapable of improvement because of their race. To use Shakespeare's language, they might have a “nature” that “nurture” would never be able to “stick” to or change. Race or “descent” might be destiny.51

What happened in America in the actual encounters between the Indians and the English strangers was not uniform. In Virginia, Indian savagery was viewed largely as cultural: Indians were ignorant heathens. In New England, on the other hand, Indian savagery was racialized: Indians came to be condemned as a demonic race, their dark complexions signifying an indelible and inherent evil. Why was there such a difference between the two regions? Possibly the competition between the English and the Indians over resources was more intense in New England than in Virginia where there was more arable land. More important, the colonists in New England had brought with them a greater sense of religious mission than the Virginia settlers. For the Puritans, theirs was an “errand into the wilderness”—a mission to create what John Winthrop had proclaimed as “a city upon a hill” with the eyes of the world upon them. In this economic and cultural framework, a “discovery” occurred: the Indian other became a manifest devil. Thus savagery was racialized as the Indians were demonized, doomed to what Increase Mather called “utter extirpation.” That process of cultural construction contributed to the making of a national identity.52

Over the centuries, the significance of this cultural construction of race grew even broader, more dynamic, and more inclusive. The play could harbor broader constructions, too, for Caliban's racial identity was ambiguous. Caliban could also have been African. “Freckled,” dark-complected, a “thing of darkness,” Caliban was the son of Sycorax, a witch who had lived in Africa. “Have we devils here?” declared Stephano in The Tempest. “Do you put tricks upon's with savages and men of Inde, ha?” As this reference to India suggests, Caliban could also have been Asian.53


  1. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. Lamar (New York, 1971), 81. The Tempest has recently been swept into the storm over “political correctness.” George Will issued a scathing attack on “left” scholars and their “perverse liberation” of literature, especially their interpretation of The Tempest as a reflection of “the imperialist rape of the Third World.” Shakespeare specialist Stephen Greenblatt responded: “This is a curious example—since it is very difficult to argue that The Tempest is not about imperialism.” Such an authoritative counterstatement clears the way for a study of the play in relationship to its historical setting. See George Will, “Literary Politics: ‘The Tempest’? It’s ‘really’ about imperialism. Emily Dickinson's poetry? Masturbation,” Newsweek, April 22, 1991, p. 72; and Stephen Greenblatt, “The Best Way to Kill Our Literary Inheritance Is to Turn It into a Decorous Celebration of the New World Order,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 1991, pp. B1, B3. As Adam Begley has recently noted, Stanley Fish reminds us that “the circumstances of an utterance determine its meaning.” See Adam Begley, “Souped-Up Scholar,” New York Times Magazine, May 3, 1992, p. 52. The ideas on race and ethnicity presented in this article are further developed in Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multi-Cultural America (Boston, forthcoming).

  2. Winthrop Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968), 37-40. Othello was first performed in 1604, before the founding of Jamestown. Jordan overlooked the rich possibility of studying The Tempest.

  3. Nicholas P. Canny, “The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 30 (Oct. 1973), 585; David B. Quinn, The Elizabethans and the Irish (Ithaca, 1966), 161; Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (New York, 1976), 7. George Frederickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York, 1971), 13, describes the conquest of Ireland as a “rehearsal.”

  4. Canny, “Ideology of English Colonization,” 585, 588; Howard Mumford Jones, O Strange New World: American Culture, the Formative Years (New York, 1965), 169; Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (New York, 1983), 42; Jennings, Invasion of America, 46, 49; James Muldoon, “The Indian as Irishman,” Essex Institute Historical Collections, 111 (Oct. 1975), 269; Quinn, Elizabethans and the Irish, 76.

  5. Muldoon, “Indian as Irishman,” 284; Quinn, Elizabethans and the Irish, 108.

  6. Canny, “Ideology of English Colonization,” 593, 582; Jennings, Invasion of America, 153; Frederickson, White Supremacy, 15; Quinn, Elizabethans and the Irish, 132-33.

  7. Canny, “Ideology of English Colonization,” 582; Jennings, Invasion of America, 168; Quinn, Elizabethans and the Irish, 44.

  8. Canny, “Ideology of English Colonization,” 588; Jennings, Invasion of America, 46, 49; Quinn, Elizabethans and the Irish, 76; Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 70.

  9. Quinn, Elizabethans and the Irish, 121; William Christie MacLeod, “Celt and Indian: Britain's Old World Frontier in Relation to the New,” in Beyond the Frontier: Social Process and Cultural Change, ed. Paul Bohannan and Fred Plog (Garden City, 1967), 38-39; Jennings, Invasion of America, 312.

  10. Quinn, Elizabethans and the Irish, 121; Muldoon, “Indian as Irishman,” 270; MacLeod, “Celt and Indian,” 26. See also Canny, “Ideology of English Colonization,” 576.

  11. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 13, 81; Frank Kermode, “Introduction,” in William Shakespeare. The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London, 1969), xxvii; Robert R. Cawley, “Shakespeare's Use of the Voyagers in The Tempest,PMLA, 41 (Sept. 1926), 699-700, 689; Frederickson, White Supremacy, 22; Shakespeare, Tempest, 13. See also Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York, 1964), 34-75.

  12. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 27-28, 31; Cawley, “Shakespeare's Use of the Voyagers in The Tempest,” 702-4; Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (New York, 1990), 102. For analysis of America imaged as a woman, see Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill, 1989), 101; and Annette Kolodny. The Lay of the Land Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill, 1975).

  13. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, xxxviii; Kermode, “Introduction,” xxiv. For the anagram of Hamlet, see dedication to William Shakespeare at Kronborg Castle, Denmark.

  14. Samuel Eliot Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (New York, 1963), 126; Sale, Conquest of Paradise, 126; Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents, 238, 226-27.

  15. Kenneth M. Morrison, The Embattled Northeast: The Elusive Ideal of Alliance in Abenaki-Euramerican Relations (Berkeley, 1984), 22-23; Leonard A. Adolf, “Squanto's Role in Pilgrim Diplomacy,” Ethnohistory, 11 (Fall 1964), 247-48; Cawley, “Shakespeare's Use of the Voyagers in The Tempest,” 720, 721; Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 41, 40; Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Kermode, 62.

  16. William Bradford. Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647 (New York, 1967), 26; Frederickson, White Supremacy, 11; Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore, 1967), 12; Colin G. Calloway, ed., Dawnland Encounters: Indians and Europeans in Northern New England (Hanover, 1991), 33.

  17. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 70; Wilcomb Washburn, ed., Indian and White Man (New York, 1964), 4-5; Morrison, Embattled Northeast, 22-23. On the significance of the sword, see Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (New York, 1988).

  18. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 85; Washburn, ed., Indian and White Man, 4, 5, 7.

  19. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 62, 18, 19.

  20. Frederickson, White Supremacy, 9. The terms “descent” and “consent” are from Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity; Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York, 1986), 6. Sollors minimizes the significance of race, arguing that it is “merely one aspect of ethnicity.” Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, 36. I take the opposite position here as well as in Ronald Takaki, “Reflections on Racial Patterns in America,” in From Different Shores: Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America, ed. Ronald Takaki (New York, 1987), 26-38; and Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1979).

  21. Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, 36-37; Frederickson, White Supremacy, 8; Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents, 92, 136; Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 57.

  22. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 19; Cawley, “Shakespeare's Use of the Voyagers in The Tempest,” 715; Frederickson, White Supremacy, 12; Pearce, Savagism and Civilization, 9, 10.

  23. James Axtell, After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York, 1988), 190; Helen C. Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture (Norman, 1990), 44, 45, 46, 49, 60, 63.

  24. Mortimer J. Adler, ed., Annals of America, vol. I: Discovering a New World (Chicago, 1968), 21, 26, 22.

  25. Gary Nash. Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (Englewood Cliffs, 1974), 58; Adler, ed., Annals of America. 1, 26.

  26. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, books I and II (Cambridge, 1977), 116; Frederickson, White Supremacy, 24; Sale, Conquest of Paradise. 277.

  27. Jennings, Invasion of America, 66; Nash. Red, White, and Black, 57.

  28. Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 22; Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 29, 80, 52; Thomas More, Utopia (New Haven, 1964), 76; Thomas, Man and the Natural World, 42; Cawley, “Shakespeare's Use of the Voyagers in The Tempest,” 715.

  29. Jennings, Invasion of America, 78, 80; Sale, Conquest of Paradise, 295.

  30. Nash, Red, White, and Black, 62, 63; Sale, Conquest of Paradise, 293, 294; Jennings, Invasion of America, 153.

  31. Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, 6, 36, 37.

  32. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 70, 15-16, 18, 19, 29, 50. For the location of Caliban's sty, see Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Kermode, 63.

  33. Howard S. Russell, Indian New England before the Mayflower (Hanover, 1980), 11; Adler, ed., Annals of America, 1, 39.

  34. Eva L. Butler, “Algonkian Culture and the Use of Maize in Southern New England,” Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Connecticut (no. 22, Dec. 1948), 6; Speck, “Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs,” Journal of American Folk-lore, 48 (Jan.-March 1915), 75; Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 72.

  35. Russell, Indian New England, 10, 11, 166; Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 80; Peter A. Thomas, “Contrastive Subsistence Strategies and Land Use as Factors for Understanding Indian-White Relations in New England,” Ethnohistory, 23 (Winter 1976), 10; Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (Detroit, 1973), 170; Butler, “Algonkian Culture and the Use of Maize,” 15, 17. For a study of the Abenakis as hunters, see Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 29-68.

  36. Johnson, Wonder-working Providence, 262; William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983), 55, 56; William Wood, New England's Prospect, ed. Alden T. Vaughn (Amherst, 1977), 96.

  37. Alfred W. Crosby, “Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 33 (April 1976), 289; Dean R. Snow, “Abenaki Fur Trade in the Sixteenth Century,” Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, 6 (no. 1, 1976), 8; Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 90.

  38. Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 270-71.

  39. Roy Harvey Pearce, “The ‘Ruines of Mankind’: The Indian and the Puritan Mind,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 13 (1952), 201; Peter Carroll, Puritanism and the Wilderness: The Intellectual Significance of the Frontier, 1629-1700 (New York, 1969), 13; Johnson, Wonder-working Providence, 40.

  40. Cronon, Changes in the Land, 90; Alfred W. Crosby, “God … Would Destroy Them, and Give Their Country to Another People,” American Heritage, 29 (Oct./Nov. 1978), 40; Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 65-66.

  41. William S. Simmons, “Cultural Bias in the New England Puritans' Perception of Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly, 38 (Jan. 1981), 70, 62.

  42. Kai Erikson, Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance (New York, 1966), 13, 64. See also Pearce, Savagism and Civilization, 8.

  43. Cotton Mather, On Witchcraft: Being, the Wonders of the Invisible World (New York, n.d.), 53. This treatise was originally published in 1692. Simmons, “Cultural Bias,” 71.

  44. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, 1973), 132, 142, 65.

  45. Johnson, Wonder-working Providence, 263; Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 205.

  46. John Winthrop, Winthrop Papers, vol. II: 1623-1630 (Boston, 1931), 139.

  47. Thomas, “Contrastive Subsistence Strategies and Land Use,” 4.

  48. Charles M. Segal and David C. Stineback, eds., Puritans, Indians & Manifest Destiny (New York, 1977), 136-37, 111; Sherburne F. Cook, “Interracial Warfare and Population Decline among the New England Indians,” Ethnohistory, 20 (Winter 1973), 19-21; Simmons, “Cultural Bias,” 67; Segal and Stineback, eds., Puritans, Indians & Manifest Destiny, 182.

  49. Johnson, Wonder-working Providence, 71, 168, 211, 247-48; see Cronon, Changes in the Land, 166-67.

  50. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 76.

  51. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 70; Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity, 6-7, 36-37.

  52. Perry Miller, in Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (New York, 1964), 1-15; John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in Perry Miller, ed., The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry (New York, 1956), 79-84; Simmons, “Cultural Bias,” 67. Miller's metaphor and theme originally came from Samuel Danforth's sermon, delivered on May 11, 1670, “A Brief Recognition of New England's Errand into the Wilderness.”

  53. Shakespeare, Tempest, ed. Wright and Lamar, 15, 41.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: “Out of the Matrix: Shakespeare and Race-Writing,” in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 13-29.

[In the following essay, Crewe examines the “racializing potential” of Shakespeare's drama and poetry, arguing that “race is ubiquitous in Shakespeare's work.”]

At present, any attempt to discuss “Shakespeare and race-writing” in general will almost certainly appear misconceived. To suppose, for a start, that Shakespeare engages in something we might call race-writing is already to risk begging the question entirely. Even if the term “race” is granted, recent studies have rightly emphasized the heterogeneity and historical specificity of “racial” construction in the early modern period. These inhibiting considerations notwithstanding, I have posed the question of Shakespeare and race-writing in general terms. I have done so because it seems to me that prevailing historicist and/or cultural-studies categories make it difficult to precipitate the issue of “race” in Shakespeare broadly or fluidly enough to do justice to the phenomenon. Some further constriction may result from anxieties attendant on the discussion of so hurtful a topic as race. Without denying the sensitivity of the issue, I do not believe that these forms of constriction do any good. I shall proceed to argue, therefore, that insofar as Shakespeare can be seen to engage in “race-writing” at all, that writing is not confined to overtly racialized characters and situations in a handful of plays. On the contrary, “race” is ubiquitous in Shakespeare's work: ubiquitously prophesied; ever-present even when not deliberately foregrounded; constituted exorbitantly from the start.

Before elaborating on these remarks, I shall mention that they have not been prompted simply by consideration of Shakespeare's plays. Nor have they been exclusively prompted by recent discussion of Shakespearean and/or early modern racial construction.1 An important instigation came from outside the field in the guise of Neil Jordan's film The Crying Game. Arguably, Jordan's film is one that seeks to realize the politically progressive potentialities of crossing in both the gendered and the racial senses of the term, the transvestite character Dil being the crossing figure in both those senses. Yet any assumption of progressive homology between the film's destabilizing sex-gender representations and its racial-ethnic ones would be questionable.2 The ironic brilliance, articulateness, and political purposiveness of the film's gender-discourse are simply not matched in the film's racial/ethnic discourse. Perhaps it is because so many people now believe that sexuality and gender are culturally constructed and performed—or at least that the constructive-performative dimension is more consequential than the biological one—that Jordan's gender-bending tour de force could be produced as a mainstream film and received with broad public acclaim. As I have suggested, however, the film's racial/ethnic script remains fragmentary, relatively inarticulate, in comparison with its “performative” sex-gender script. Does this difference imply a lack of public conviction that race, too, is culturally constructed and performed? A strong residual belief that race is an intractable biological fact? Or does it imply a continuing deficiency in our critical discourses of “race”?

Consider the analogy apparently set up in the film between crossing (or passing) in gender terms and in racial/ethnic ones. Played by the “dark-skinned” Jaye Davidson, the gender-crossing transvestite character Dil can also be seen as a highly-eroticized racially or ethnically indeterminate figure, deconstructing the film's black-white polarities and constituting a valued third term. As an eroticized intermediary, Dil appears capable of negotiating racial/ethnic differences.3The Crying Game might thus be understood to promote ethnic plurality—and maybe “ethnicity” as such—in place of antagonistically “pure,” reductive, racial identities (black man-white man; “nigger”-Irish). Some difficulties may be posed for this thesis, however, by the different ways in which Dil is seen by different viewing audiences.4 A more serious difficulty arises from the apparent bodily coding—indeed, color-coding—of Dil as a figure of racial/ethnic indeterminacy or non-identity in the presence of sharply defined (black-white) bodily alternatives. In racial/ethnic terms, Dil does not represent a performative option so much as a particular look—one that leads bell hooks to characterize him/her as the type of the eroticized mulatta in an all too familiar racial schema. While I do not believe this characterization is necessarily correct, it raises a question about what Dil can stand for in the racial/ethnic context of the film.5

What, in fact, can Dil's racial/ethnic indeterminacy stand for if not the eugenic undoing of “pure” racial identity and hence antagonism? Failing any positive ethnic identification, to what can Dil's indeterminability attest if not a eugenic dream of benign mixture, with deracialization as its utopian telos? Yet no eugenic politics can be enunciated in film, or with reference to it, given both the current discrediting of racial eugenics and current reinvestment in ethnicity as distinct from race.6 The film's discursive blockage on this subject is rendered virtually complete by the fact that any explicit eugenic idealization of Dil would be no less disturbing in its complicated invidiousness than is the abjecting disdain for persons of “mixed race” in strongly race-polarized and race-identified cultures.7

In short, although The Crying Game is an actively anti-racist film, it is also a film at once possessed and thwarted by racial consciousness. Such “passive” racialism, which is certainly not confined to The Crying Game alone at present, can be regarded as a troubling residue of Western racial construction at least since the actively formative (perhaps strictly reformative) early modern period. It is for participating momentously and overtly in such racial construction—among other things—that Shakespeare stands out among his English contemporaries. The study of Shakespeare's race-writing may thus enable us to recognize the extensiveness of the racial residue of Western cultural construction as a preliminary to further consideration of any “post-racial” identification or consciousness. It is on this premise that I wish to broach once again the broad question of Shakespeare's race-writing, concluding with an example from the sonnets as an important “racial” text.

Racial readings of Shakespeare are hardly new. In an essay titled “The Getting of a Lawful Race,” however, Lynda Boose makes a case for reading the Shakespearean racial text more systematically and less anachronistically than has generally been done in the past from any point of view. These two requirements virtually mandate a fresh start in racial reading of Shakespeare, although it should be added that this fresh start has effectively been made by Shakespeareans working in postcolonial and cultural studies frames of reference. Some of the best new work appears in the very volume in which Boose issues her call for renovation.8 Insisting, nevertheless, that such reading be properly historical, Boose establishes three caveats. First, racial categories and imaginary racial genealogies are fluid at the time Shakespeare is writing. To read these texts into stabilized modern racial categories is anachronistic. Second, to the extent that early modern racial categories are stabilized, or are in the process of being stabilized, they differ from modern ones. Categorical misalignments in racial readings of Shakespeare are thus also to be avoided. (These caveats resemble the one now widely accepted about the impropriety of applying modern categories of sexuality to Renaissance texts.) Third, racial categories are never constructed independently of other cultural-political categories, notably those of class, sexuality, gender and nationality. Crossing of categories can thus easily entail double or multiple crossing. For example, the speaker in Micro-Cynicon: Sixe Snarling Satyres (1599), by T- M- (Thomas Middleton?) alludes to a prostitute-figure anticipating Dil in The Crying Game as a “pale Checkquered black Hermaphrodite.”9 This strongly eroticized multicategorical figure resists any exclusively racial reading, apparently figuring instead a disturbingly magnetic indeterminability.

Boose focusses mainly on the formation of white racial ideology through an interplay between what might be called the Renaissance ethnographic Imaginary (comprising the essentially fictional constructions of race inherited from classical antiquity and the middle ages) and the empirical data of early modern inter-ethnic encounters, the latter occurring mainly under the impetus of European imperial expansion. As part of this discussion, she notes the formativeness of English colonial/racial construction of the Irish for later constructions of race that will, so to speak, be ever more elaborately color-coded and body-typed, thus technically becoming subject to empirical verification. The perniciousness of racial othering (and enslavement) arises not only from the power-differential governing these encounters but from their overwhelming predetermination by texts concerning the savagery, wildness or Plinian monstrousness of “other” races. (Clearly, idealization of racial others as noble or prelapsarian is another mode of imperious othering that does no service to its objects.) Yet this history, voluminous, complicated, and still in the process of being written, is not the whole story. I particularly want to focus here on the discursive matrix from which Shakespeare's race-writing is historically precipitated. The racializing potentialities of that matrix—what we might call its many proto-racial components—are as much responsible as any other immediate circumstance for Shakespeare's production of a racialized text.

The common, gendered term “matrix” is one I choose deliberately. In the first instance, I use it to designate the loose ensemble of logical categories and operations, rhetorical tropes, semantic units, grammatical and prosodic forms, and whatever other elements comprise the language-situation for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Admittedly, the term “matrix” may, when used in this sense, seem barely distinguishable from “discourse.” In use, the term may thus seem only to reiterate the post-structuralist point that language stands in a constitutive rather than a derivative or mimetic relation to social reality.

In fact, however, the term “discourse,” even in Foucault's historically inflected usage, still adheres to its structuralist antecedents. Its use still recalls the structuralist model of language as a synchronic system, and it recalls more specifically the linearization of signifying utterance in structuralism, whether in terms of Saussure's single axis or Jakobson's coordinating axes. The systemic autonomy and unqualified originary status of language are likewise recalled, and have been dogmatically reiterated in a great deal of post-structuralist work. While “matrix” may still imply the constitutiveness of language, it does not invest language with primordial structural autonomy. Instead, a relatively unstructured, temporal grouping of elements—one capable of being troped, perhaps, as fecund, but also as “hysterically” mobile—is designated by the term. To the extent that structural binaries remain present in the matrix, their primordial constitutiveness is attenuated and their oppositional alignment is unsettled.

In The Renaissance Notion of Woman, for example, Ian Maclean refers Western gender-discourse (as we might also refer racial discourse) back to such primordial binaries as male-female; limited-unlimited; odd-even, etc., the series culminating in light-darkness; good-evil.10 Obviously, these binaries cannot be regarded as neutral structural ones, but must rather be seen as value-laden residues of an unrecoverable but nonetheless real prehistory. In other words, their diachronic and culture-specific character is already manifest. Yet insofar as these binaries enter recorded (Western) cultural history, they do so within a loose, historically shifting, ensemble, not as fatefully determining structural poles. It is to this ensemble that the term “matrix” can be applied.

If there is a further justification for preferring the term “matrix,” it is that it tropes linguistic constitutiveness and historical limitation in a way that appears to me reasonably consonant with Shakespearean practice. This consideration is not unimportant if, as I do, one attaches considerable heuristic as well as historical importance to Shakespeare's practice in race-gender representations. Insofar as “matrix” is irreducibly gendered, however, it remains unavoidably implicated in conflict between idealization of the prolific female source and misogynistic stigmatization of the female threat to masculine idealization.11 Yet the term can still be usefully employed to designate the (admittedly very large) set of particulars constituting speech and writing as agencies of cultural production at any given moment; it is not therefore a term exclusively bound either to mythic engendering or biological procreation. To turn attention to the Shakespearean matrix as one in which a strong, widely dispersed, racializing potential exists is not to turn away from the historical specifics of Shakespearean racial construction, but rather to reconnect those specifics to the language-situation enabling such construction.

To indicate what I mean by the racializing potential of the matrix, I shall begin with an example from “The Rape of Lucrece.” As one would expect, gender-conflict is strongly foregrounded in the poem, while categories of racial difference seem irrelevant given the implicit uniform “whiteness” of the poem's Roman characters.12 Yet the moral terms of the poem are proto-racial as well. At Lucrece's death, her blood becomes a “purple fountain” bubbling from her breast, but as it spreads on the floor around her the mixed color purple begins to separate out into fractions:

Some of her blood still pure and red remain’d,
And some look’d black, and that false Tarquin stained.(13)

Lucrece's death is needed, in effect, to undo the internalized moral stain that is already tantamount to biological admixture. Only the most limited resemanticization would be needed to turn the “false” Tarquin who taints Lucrece's blood into an anxiously guilty yet sexually violent “colored” man, and Lucrece into the raped white woman. This resemanticization would still require Lucrece's noble death, not merely to uphold Roman honor in the abstract, but to forestall the birth of a child of mixed blood, an outcome strongly foreshadowed in the lines quoted above.

The initial purification-scenario, however, in which Lucrece's and Tarquin's blood separate out after flowing from the common purple source, proves revealingly insufficient. The red and the black components turn out not to be the only ones, while the diacritical antithesis between them in terms of purity and impurity requires further elaboration. Contemporary “experimental” knowledge of the bodily humors apparently supplied the basis for a further refinement:

And as there are four elements out of which our bodies are compounded, so there are four sorts of humors answerable to their natures, being all mingled together with the blood, as we may see by experience in blood let out of one's body. For uppermost we see as it were a little skim like to the flower or working of new wine. … Next we may see as it were small streams of water mingled with the blood. And in the bottom we see a black and thicker humor, like to the lees of wine in a wine-vessel.14

Each of these blood-fractions represents one of the four humors, blood containing all of them in varying proportions.

One could argue that in “The Rape of Lucrece” this humoral observation, the empiricity of which is confirmed by its non-distinction from viticultural observation, undergoes moral allegorization as Lucrece's spilt blood composes itself into an emblem. I believe it would be more accurate to say, first, that a fateful empirical ligature is being produced here between humoral physiology and race, and, second, that unstably hierarchized physiological and moral elements are present in the matrix, along with a strong personifying agency that is also proto-racial:

About the mourning and congealed face
Of that black blood a wat’ry rigol goes,
Which seems to weep upon the tainted place,
And ever since, as pitying Lucrece’ woes,
Corrupted blood some wat’ry token shows,
And blood untainted still doth red abide,
Blushing at that which is so putrefied.(15)


As regards the previous diacritical antithesis between red and black, purity and impurity, it appears that untainted red blood is an irreducible oxymoron (it will “abide”). Yet the oxymoron will apparently be tolerable for ordinary moral and potentially procreative purposes (untainted blood can “abide” red). It is of this pure blood that the white woman will remain the primary vessel. Red blood cannot itself, however, be the signifier of purity. That at which it blushes is also its colored self. The signification of purity additionally requires that a completely untainted “wat’ry rigol” be separated out, and remain separated from, blood in any of its compromised colors. It is this colorless essence, of which the tears that forever bewail the tainted human condition also seem to be composed, that remains wholly antipathetic to any admixture with the blackness it also circumscribes.16 Perhaps it is on this strange essence that the projection of a full-blown white racial ideology will eventually depend. Here, however, the only human face that materializes is the one into which the dark Tarquin-blood congeals. Essential purity has no picturable face, or, perhaps, human embodiment. This emblem's strange condensation of darkness, sexuality, loss, melancholia, death, sanctity and taint recurs in Sonnet 127, to which I shall turn in due course. It is in this knot or complex, however, that the human image is simultaneously precipitated and disavowed as black.

It is not only in this passage that a discourse of “color” is produced in the poem. Before the poem's tragic resolution transpires, another field of color has been negotiated through conventional Petrarchan troping of the red and the white:17

When at Collatium this false lord arrived,
Well was he welcom’d by the Roman dame,
Within whose face beauty and virtue strived
Which of them both should underprop her fame.
When virtue bragg’d, beauty would blush for shame;
When beauty boasted blushes, in despite,
Virtue would stain that o’er with silver white.
But beauty, in that white entituled,
From Venus' doves, doth challenge that fair field;
Then virtue claims from beauty beauty's red,
Which virtue gave the golden age to gild
Their silver cheeks, and call’d it then their shield,
Teaching them thus to use it in the fight,
When shame assail’d, the red should fence the white.


Shakespeare is, as we know, among the English Renaissance writers who seek to reconstruct the figure of the Petrarchan woman as one in whom desire and chastity are reconciled, this reconciliation being solemnized through marriage. Such reconciliation under the aegis of “married chastity” represents an alternative to the old Petrarchan war between desire and chastity which is, on one hand, a gendered battle between male desire and female chastity, and on the other hand a civil war between desire and chastity in the woman herself.18 In the woman's case, the red and white, respectively signifying the desire of her blood and her chaste spiritual purity, remain at odds. In “Lucrece,” however, the alternative of reconciliation and interchange between desire and chastity, and between everything else those terms encode, is projected through an extraordinarily fluid, inventive, miscegenating blazon in which primary colors and significations are mingled, promising an end to the war of the sexes (and, of course, in the Elizabethan context, to the War of the Roses). Insofar as both race and gender are interchangeably constituted and color-coded, which is not to say that they are ever identically constituted, the blazon can provide a model for benign interchange and crossing as well as opposition. The apparent inability of this revisionary blazon to function as an effective model for nontragic resolution in the poem, or to resolve contradictions without revealing new ones, may simply reveal the power of countervailing imperatives of (racial) purity and (gendered) identity in the early modern period.19 It is these highly reductive imperatives, to be written even or above all on people's bodies, that the protoracial discourse of “Lucrece” announces.

Local examples of racializing potential abound in the Shakespeare canon. Neither Macbeth nor, presumably, Shakespeare is thinking racially in the famous lines:

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.


Nor, presumably, is Lady Macbeth thinking racially when she says:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!


What, will these hands ne’er be clean?

[V.i.35, 43]

Yet the preternatural staining power of blood can be mobilized in Shakespearean and post-Shakespearean racial construction to signify the fatal effects of even the smallest admixture of bad/black blood; the characteristic exorbitancy of racialization—of racial discourse—is strongly anticipated in these hyperbolic locutions.20 It is not just the indelibly tainting power of blood but its limitless dispersion that renders the dark woman-as-mother singularly threatening, as Boose has argued, to “white” patrilineal construction.21

Some examples of racializing potential are less local than this one. The strongly gendered Elizabethan language of cosmetic coloration, so well discussed by Frances Dolan in the context of misogyny, is already rife with anticipations of racialized “blackening,” “whitening” and passing, while the cosmetic taint that impeaches female chastity also implies an underlying “darkness” equally capable of bearing race, class or gender implication.22 (Thus the representation of the chaste woman, who must never be “colored,” tinted, or tainted, becomes a virtual impasse for the male Elizabethan poet or painter.)23 Racial actualization is already under way when Lysander blackens Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream by saying: “Away, you Ethiope” [III.iii.257] or “Out, tawny Tartar, out!” [III.ii.263]. Lysander's capacity to blacken Hermia arbitrarily and aggressively in this way implies a still-nascent power both of racial construction and “exposure.” At the same time, Hermia's stereotypical characterization as the dark twin to the ideally fair Helena does not prevent Helena from seeing herself in competition with a fair Hermia [I.ii.227] for the Athenian beauty-prize. The fact that a dark beauty can be fairer than the fair depends, obviously enough, on the double and hence separable meanings of “fair” as blonde and as beautiful, implying the manipulable contingency of these characterizations. Yet the embeddedness of a small set of virulent Africanist or Orientalist tropes in the contemporary discursive matrix facilitates both a racial vectoring of representation and associative conjunction between logically disparate fields.24

The terms of cosmetic and bodily coloration merge, for example, with the terms of rhetorical coloration in the key racialized figure of Othello. Or, to put it differently, the figure of Othello materializes from a field in which, among other things, rhetorical, cosmetic, and bodily coloring become intermingled. Othello's bodily coloring seems almost complementary to the high rhetorical coloring he also manifests, while his denial of both these forms of coloring represents a paradoxically internalized cosmetology of passing. These denials notwithstanding, Othello's high “coloring” suffices to taint the chaste white woman (Desdemona), even or above all in his own mind.25 Both the racist discourse of speakers in Othello and the play's racialized representation of Othello as “Moor” actualize a broad tainting potential of the play's matrix. In other words, Othello's emergence as a racialized character depends on a great deal more than the empirical contingency of Renaissance inter-ethnic encounters.

Examples of this kind could be multiplied almost indefinitely, and not only with respect to Shakespeare's overtly racialized characters or situations. Cumulatively, such examples project racial differences as deep-dyed ones, so to speak, while that projection in turn connects racialization via the discourse of purity to nameless archaic horrors of blood-taint. For Shakespeare, I would suggest, this racializing potentiality of the matrix, actualized as historical pressure and occasion dictate in such figures as Aaron, Tamora, Shylock, Jessica, Othello, Cleopatra and Caliban, is not exhausted by the production of these characters and situations.26 The fact that the racializing potentiality is not localized, and cannot be bounded within a set of racial characters, means that it is indeterminable, always exorbitant. It is to this state of affairs that the sonnets testify as a “racial” text.

A racial reading of the sonnets is strongly anticipated by Joel Fineman in Shakespeare's Perjur’d Eye, when he refers periodically to their “miscegenating” discourse.27 In speaking of the sonnets as a script for miscegenation, Fineman is not speaking pointedly of them as a racial text. It is to an incongruous mixture of categories that he is primarily referring, heterosexuality already constituting a categorical mixture as opposed to the categorical purity of the male homoerotic bond. Yet on one hand Fineman cannot purge the term “miscegenation” of its latter-day racial meaning, which, according to the OED, dates from 1864, while on the other hand his application of the term to the sonnets makes them historically anticipatory of a racial discourse in which racial miscegenation will be tabooed or formally outlawed. In effect, Fineman's etymologically correct use of the term “miscegenation” hovers delicately between historical anticipation and retrospect. Boose, too, finds race not yet fully operative but unmistakeably emerging as the dominant European cultural category in the early seventeenth century.

In Fineman's terms, the sonnets constitute the Shakespearean master-code in which, among other things, modern Western subjectivity is decisively programmed. Fineman construes this subjectivity in Lacanian terms, making it first an effect of specular identification and then of symbolic reconstruction, the two phases corresponding roughly to the Young Man and Dark Lady sonnets respectively. No racial thematic is entailed in Fineman's reading, yet insofar as it is propped, like so many other sonnet-readings, on the imaginary master-narrative of the Young Man and the Dark Lady, it registers a strong racial-genetic potential. Fineman declines to thematize race because Lacanian subject-formation remains normatively if tacitly centered on the white, male, Western subject. For Lacan, just as there is explicitly “no woman,” so there is implicitly no person of color, yet this constitutes erasure without prejudice, so to speak.28

What can be tacit for Lacan and Fineman, however, as well as being repressed in innumerable readings of the sonnets, is not tacit for Shakespeare, who problematically and momentously posits (or historically recognizes) the fair young man as the cultural ideal, with respect to whom all others will stand in abjected, specular or invisibly inmixed relation. This prospect comes close to being fully enunciated in Sonnet 20 (“A woman's face with nature's own hand painted”). Although now practically read to death for its gender-ambiguity, the sonnet's preoccupation with color has largely escaped notice, as has the proto-racial implication of the line “a man in hue, all hues in his controlling.” While “hue” may refer to a male appearance in the first instance, thus prophesying only gender-subordination, the normative fairness of this man is also implied, thus prophesying the subjection of all other “hues” to this one. However complicated, mixed, or self-alienated normative Western subjectivity may become, it will be vested in the specularized, white, male body.

Partly under the impetus of race-class-gender critiques as well as ethnic and multicultural politics, however, this state of affairs can no longer be taken for granted. What follows—or has already followed to a significant degree—is widespread reading of Shakespeare at, or somewhere between, two conceivable limits. At one end of the spectrum, Shakespeare is readable as a leading early modern promulgator of hegemonic Western race/class/gender norms, while at the other end he is read as profoundly and resistantly Other with respect to those same norms. At this end of the spectrum, Shakespeare's prolific, multipositional dramatizations, coupled with his personal “absence” or invisibility as author, make it possible for him to be critically relocated in the productive position of the black mother rather than the white father—to salutary effect, perhaps, on those still invested in Shakespeare as the canonical guarantor of white-male-universal Western culture.29 That the theater should be the imagined locus of such “maternal” production is consistent with repeated troping of the theater, in Shakespeare and elsewhere, as countercultural and prolifically female (it is the scene of Cleopatra's triumph). In turning to Sonnet 127, however, I wish, instead of positioning Shakespeare in relation to these limits, to engage with his heuristic and self-reflexive troping of the racializing matrix.

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame,
For since each hand hath put on nature's power,
Fairing the foul with art's false-borrow’d face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow’r,
But is profan’d, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, that they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

To begin by rehearsing some fairly common observations about this sonnet, it is strategically placed as the first of the so-called Dark Lady poems in the 1609 quarto sequence, following the truncated, twelve-line sonnet in rhyming couplets that ends the Young Man series. An important break and a transition are thus apparently marked; we might add that they are metrically re-marked in line 3 of the sonnet through the abrupt inversion and jarring caesura of “black/beauty's.”30 A modal shift from Petrarchan to anti-Petrarchan also coincides with the first appearance of the Dark Lady. This complex transposition and inversion of Petrarchan idealization seemingly includes a proto-racial critique of an entire value system predicated on an arbitrary coincidence between the “true,” the “good” and the “fair.”

These ordinary terms of approach to Sonnet 127 facilitate a racial reading. Rather than presenting a racial “character,” however, Sonnet 127 seemingly enacts a struggle between romance precipitation and continuing repression of the powerful, racialized female character as a strong potentiality inherent in the matrix. Struggle occurs for many reasons. First, in Boose's terms, the black woman is the unrepresentable in white racial-genetic ideology. Bringing the black woman to consciousness and representation is thus a formidable counter-ideological undertaking. The degree to which the emergence of Cleopatra represents this “triumph” remains debatable, not only with reference to the play but to complex ongoing debate about the “blackening” and “whitening” of Cleopatra in Western cultural history.31 Second, more is involved in Sonnet 127 than the substitution of one leading character (or addressee) for another in the sonnet sequence. An inversion of the figure-ground relation between fair young man and “colored” woman is also involved; an entire structure of representation (and of repression) is thus being painfully reconceived. Third, the emergence of the black woman entails a strongly reflexive turn to (troping of) the gendered matrix rather than the figures hitherto precipitated from it. The potentiating and simultaneously threatening relation of the matrix to its products comes dimly into view, as does the power of the matrix as the “tainted” source and ultimate undoing of all that is thought fair, good and true. In this moment of dawning recognition, the “normal” Petrarchan monotony of idealization and its discontents gives way to a state of volatile, highly charged ambivalence. Fourth, the emergence of the black woman subverts the narrative in which she is comprehended. In the “old days,” we are told, “black was not counted fair,” thus the emergence of “black beauty” as a historical novelty prophesies an epochal reversal and lamentable transvaluation of values. In a sense, however, these old days are no further back than the previous sonnet, and any contemporary reader of Sonnet 127 could have been aware that the female “black beauty” of the Song of Solomon may well have antedated the “fair” ideal of the previous sonnets. The coincidence between fair, true, and good is thus threatened with exposure as a latter-day imposition—and form of denial—given spurious originary status. A wholly false, supplanting cultural genealogy and value-system may therefore be represented by the fair young man, not by the stigmatized black woman. Finally, the entire order of visionary, specular optics in which the “I” is precipitated as a function of the “eye,” and which, according to Fineman, constitutes premodern Western subjectivity, is undone, exposing a range of disconcerting alternatives. The mirror of identity becomes one of melancholy difference rather than sameness; or absorbs instead of reflecting; or confronts the beholder simultaneously with the lack of any identity and corresponding pathos of a shared, senselessly martyred dark humanity, from which the name of “beauty” is witheld; or, finally, becomes the mirror of a human mortality at once denied and projected onto the dark person as distinct from the immortally fair one.

The near-inconceivability for the speaker of everything being registered in this sonnet is made explicit in a number of ways that barely require commentary: it is enough to note the poem's scandalized citation of the purity-threatening universality of cosmetic color; the disappearance of nature; the indeterminability of the bastard; the rupture of true genealogy, and so on. Beyond the speaker's concern about these fetishes of the period, however, a deeper dislocation is implied in the poem by the persistence of logical and rhetorical forms that no longer make normal logical and rhetorical sense. “Therefore,” which opens the sestet, is a logical ligature that makes no intelligible connection, and it is shortly followed by what seems like a failed rhetorical progression from “her eyes are raven black” to “her eyes so suited.” The unexpected and baldly infelicitous repetition of “eyes” creates a sense of logical and rhetorical deficiency while apparently undermining any distinction between the eyes and something else in which, or to which, they might be “suited.” If, on the other hand, the eyes are well-suited for the paradoxically funereal occasion of their debut, as is the black face that appears in Lucrece's spilt blood, they also seem to mark the point of disappearance between the suit and that which is suited, the costume and the wearer of the costume. The lady is being painted black-on-black, as black takes over everywhere. The double negative construction in the line “At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack” makes the affirmative virtually unrecoverable, both in the line and as an antecedent to “Slandering creation with a false esteem.” Effects of this order are not containable by a merely antithetical conception of anti-Petrarchanism, which, as Fineman among others has pointed out, is anticipated from the start in Petarchanism. (“My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun” is more programmatically anti-Petrarchan yet considerably less charismatically dark than Sonnet 127.)

Sonnet 127 is not a text that produces a racial character—a “black woman” in any sense in which that term would now be understood—but it is certainly one that engages in reflexive thematization of the unbounded potentialities of the racializing matrix. Perhaps only tentative conclusions can accordingly be drawn from the poem. One such conclusion is that since race has not yet been fully hardened into a master category or yoked to a master-narrative of white racial supremacy, the poem holds both racialized “truth” and its momentous undoing in prophetic suspension. In the moment of anticipation, both “white” racial ideology and its dismantling—not merely its unmasking—are prophesied. Insofar as history can be said to have verified the ambiguous prophecy, however, it cannot yet be said to have produced closure or anything close to “post-racial” consciousness; the residues, the continuing impasses, and the threats of reversal remain in historical contention.

Another, related, conclusion is that racial consciousness persists in the present because it cannot be dissipated simply through attacks on racism, by critiques of overtly racialized texts and cultural situations, or even, for that matter, by postcolonial revision and cultural critique of the Shakespearean text. Indispensable and consequential though these remain, race-writing is too insidiously pervasive, too unconfined, to be fully encompassed in these ways; indeed, a dangerously premature sense of mastery or enclosure may be produced by critiques of racial ideology as such. To return to the Shakespearean text is not (redundantly) to begin the critical reckoning with race all over again, but rather to begin a critical reckoning with “post-racial” residues even more threatening when unrecognized than when seen in all their alarming magnitude.


  1. Although their bearing remains only indirect here, I want to acknowledge the importance of the race-critiques produced by Kwame Anthony Appiah, notably “Illusions of Race” and “Topologies of Nativism,” in In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 28-72.

  2. For one negative view of the film's racial representations, see Frann Michael, “Biology Notwithstanding …,” Cineaste, 20 (1993): 30-35.

  3. I make no presumption about actor Jaye Davidson's ethnicity or his “racial” identity, to neither of which any reference is made in the film.

  4. Since racial categories and perceptions are by no means universal, how Dil is seen may differ significantly between the U.S. and England (or Ireland), and may differ again between those English-language settings and their Latin counterparts.

  5. bell hooks, “Seduction and Betrayal: The Crying Game meets The Bodyguard,Outlaw Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 53-62. While this characterization of Dil may partly explain the favorable U.S. reception of The Crying Game, I believe the term “mulatta” is misplaced with reference to any figure in a contemporary British film, that term belonging more recognizably to U.S. than to English racial discourse. Although the mestiza can be positively troped as a cultural figure in contemporary Latina writing, as, for example, in Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands = La frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987), racial body-typing remains a form of literalism by no means transcended in The Crying Game.

  6. The last flourishing of eugenics as a pseudoscience under the Third Reich served to discredit it almost entirely. The eugenic complement to racialist thinking is evident in various historical guises, however, including prescientific ones. Insofar as race is taken, in one sense or another, as a natural fact, eugenics becomes the mode of cultural intervention and control. Intervention can take the form of “getting a lawful race,” of aristocratic “breeding,” or of maintaining pure “bloodlines.” Genetic engineering has now reopened the prospect of eugenic manipulation, whether in science fiction or scientific fact. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the continuities and discontinuities between “race” and “ethnicity” in contemporary discourse, yet it seems fair to say that impulses towards positive ethnic identification tend to inhibit any final undoing of “race,” as do suspicions of genocidal intent.

  7. Repression rather than mere blockage might seem to be the operative term here, given bell hooks's observation that “Neil Jordan [has] repeatedly said that [his film] has nothing to do with race.” “What’s passion got to do with it?” Outlaw Culture, 43.

  8. Lynda Boose, “‘The Getting of a Lawful Race:’ Racial discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman,” in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (New York: Routledge, 1994), 35-54. My discussion of Shakespearean race writing “in general” is not meant to devalue or deny precedence to many important specific discussions, including, in this volume, ones by Jean Howard, Kim F. Hall, Margo Hendricks, and Jyotsna Singh. Nor is it meant to deny the multiplicity of specific “racial” types being constructed in this period (Irish, Jewish, Scottish, etc.). If I have focussed primarily on Boose's essay, it is because of the methodological principles it enunciates.

  9. Quoted in Bruce Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 181.

  10. Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 2-3.

  11. My essay-title (“Out of the Matrix”) recalls a chapter-title (“Escaping the Matrix”) in Janet Adelman's Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest” (New York: Routledge, 1992). I believe my argument is broadly compatible with Adelman's, although her primary concerns are maternity and male gynophobia.

  12. In Titus Andronicus, however, lawful Roman paternity and whiteness are not just assumed but actively constituted in doubly antithetical relation to Aaron's lawless paternity and blackness, and Tamora's racially othered (Gothic) maternity and femininity.

  13. “The Rape of Lucrece” in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) 1741 II: 1742-43. (All further references are to The Riverside Shakespeare).

  14. Pierre de la Primaudaye, The French Academy, in William Shakespeare, Hamlet, A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Cyrus Hoy, 2nd. ed. (New York: Norton, 1992), 109.

  15. Presumably following OED, “rigol” [l. 1745] is glossed as “ring, circle” in The Riverside Shakespeare. The OED definition seems primarily inferred from this passage, however, and one other in Shakespeare (2 Henry IV, IV.v.36) where the term is applied to the crown.

  16. Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613), reports that: “Some ascribe it [black skin color] (as Herodotus) to the blacknesse of the Parents sperme or seede.” Cited in Boose, “The Getting of a Lawful Race,” 43. It should be recalled, however, that geographical as well as genetic theories of racial (color) difference were widely entertained in the Elizabethan period.

  17. Notoriously, the self-division of the woman tends to undermine her ideal integrity or wholeness in Petrarchan scenarios, while her spontaneous blushing “betrays” both her own desire and her complicity with her male assailant. The lines I have quoted, “Some of her blood still pure and red remain’d, / And some look’d black, and that false Tarquin stained,” leave the question of sexual desire and agency in suspense. “False” can apply either as an adjective to Tarquin's character or as the adverb “falsely” to the staining of his character by Lucrece's accusation. Whether Lucrece has “black” blood herself, and is thus the passive, subsequently guilty, and ultimately suicidal sexual aggressor, or whether she is the blackened innocent, remains at least grammatically unresolved.

  18. Roland Greene observes that “in English as well as other European languages, the matter of racial difference comes into the word color in the early modern period, especially through the history of international exploration” (“Petrarchism among the Discourses of Imperialism,” in America in European Consciousness: 1493-1750, ed. Karen Ordahl Kupperman [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995]: 147).

  19. Rigorous logical opposition to forms of categorical merging, blurring or admixture, (i.e., logical opposition to miscegenation in its root sense), is a feature of Calvinist thought that has widely been regarded as racially (even genocidally) consequential in U.S. history. I simply note this widely held view, as well as the strongly Calvinistic strain in English reformation thinking. An iconoclastic dedication to pure whiteness or chastity is apparent in the work of major English poets from Spenser through Milton; perhaps Shakespeare is unusual in construing this dedication as fatal.

  20. Indeed, the “one drop” criterion of racial impurity, familiar in the context of American studies, is anticipated in this memorably phobic locution. See, for example, Walter Benn Michaels, “The No-Drop Rule,” Critical Inquiry, 20 (Summer, 1994): 758-69.

  21. In Boose's view, Eurocentric racial ideology stringently delegitimizes any procreation between a black man and a white woman or vice versa, though interracial sexual encounters are variably coded and tolerated—even licensed as a mode of white male seigneurial right or white woman's romance. The tragedy of Othello conveniently (yet imperatively) precludes the generation of offspring between Othello and Desdemona, lawful marriage notwithstanding.

  22. Frances Dolan, “Taking the Pencil Out of God's Hand: Art, Nature, and the Face-Painting Debate in Early Modern England,” PMLA, 108 (March, 1993): 224-39.

  23. The locus classicus for this impasse is the Proem to Book 3 of The Faerie Queene, in which it falls to the (male) author to depict chastity. For chastity to be credible, however, it must remain uncolored, untainted, and untinted, hence unpictured (it must in fact be de-picted), as must the perfectly chaste figure of Elizabeth I.

  24. The virulence and/or exorbitant mobilization of these embedded tropes can be gauged from such instances as Francis Bacon's utopian New Atlantis. In that text, “the Jew” having been assimilated as rational skeptic affirming the all-white, “virgin” (sic) Christian patriarchy, the main symbolic threat remaining is “the Spirit of Fornication” that appears in the likeness of “a little, foul ugly Aethiop.” Francis Bacon, New Atlantis and The Great Instauration in Crofts Classics, ed. Jerry Weinberger (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1989), 66. See also G.K. Hunter, “Othello and Color Prejudice,” in Interpretations of Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 180-208, for an important discussion of the classical and patristic prehistory of early modern “race,” and Karen Newman, “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello,Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), 141-62.

  25. The taint that unhinges Othello in the play has been identified by Stephen Greenblatt, “The Improvisation of Power,” Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 222-54, as the sexual taint, discursively produced by a confessional Christian culture and materialized by the blood-spotted sheets of the marriage bed. In Greenblatt's view, Othello is anxiously at war with his own sexuality. That he should be especially or exemplarily so is, however, related to the hypersexualization of the black man already being effected in “white” early modern culture.

  26. The political economy of this “dictation” is considered in broad terms by Vassilis Lambropoulos, The Rise of Eurocentrism: Anatomy of Interpretation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, and Samir Amin, Eurocentrism, tr. Russell Moore (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989).

  27. Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjur’d Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986). It is all too easy to hear “miscegenation” as a pejorative term formed with the prefix “mis-” (as in mistake, misbegotten, misconceived, etc.) rather than as a compound noun formed from L. miscere + genus. Although the earliest OED citation identifies “miscegenation” as a pseudoscientific racist coinage dating from 1864, the term etymologically designates only a mixture of kinds, not necessarily a mismatch. Nineteenth-century racialization of logico-scientific terminology is, however, apparent in this coinage.

  28. I am not accusing Lacan or Fineman of political incorrectness. Their claims are rigorously and unsentimentally developed, and have been found usefully provocative—more so than many conciliatory claims—by a number of feminists and cultural theorists. Franz Fanon's well-known appropriation of Lacan in Black Skin, White Masks is a case in point.

  29. I am not aware of any professional work in which these limit cases are systematically argued, though the limits have been apparent. The “black mother” thesis has been propounded by Marjorie Garber in the semi-formal context of a talk at Dartmouth College. However salutary, this repositioning of Shakespeare is potentially invidious along lines suggested by Tania Modleski in Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age (New York: Routledge, 1991). Insofar as the white, male author-subject is presumed capable of assuming any cultural position and mastering its discourse, he can be taken to represent all “others,” thus rendering their particular experience and even existence redundant.

  30. By whom and under what circumstances they were so marked in the 1609 quarto we have no idea. I attach neither more nor less significance to the quarto sonnet-order than is skeptically allowed by Stephen Booth (ed.) in Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 545-46. “Dark Lady” is of course a critical fabrication to which the objections are now obvious: the term is embarrassingly gentrifying and euphemistic.

  31. Mary Hamer, Signs of Cleopatra (New York: Routledge, 1993), 5 ff, notes that the historical Cleopatra was ethnically Greek, not Egyptian, as was the contemporary ruling class in Egypt. Cleopatra appears generally to have been represented as fair-skinned in the Western iconographic tradition surveyed by Hamer. Whether Shakespeare was unaware of Cleopatra's ethnicity or was blackening her in a process of denegation isn’t clear, but her “tawniness” connects her via the lines I have already cited from A Midsummer Night's Dream to the “Ethiope,” while her being “with Phoebus' amorous pinches black / And wrinkled deep in time” [I.V.28-29] strongly connects her to the sonnet-figure of the woman. The psychoanalytic trope of the sexualized woman as the “dark continent” rather than as a bounded character is strongly anticipated in all of this. Standard Elizabethan punning might further suggest the doubleness of this figure as both incontinent and all-encompassing (continent), doubly forestalling ideological enclosure while effortlessly containing its own contradictions.

Jeannette S. White (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “‘Is Black So Base a Hue?’: Shakespeare's Aaron and the Politics and Poetics of Race,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XL, No. 3, March, 1997, pp. 336-66.

[In the following essay, White contends that Aaron in Titus Andronicus subverts the Elizabethan notion that equates blackness with evil.]

“Mislike me not for my complexion,” the Prince of Morocco passionately implores Portia in the Merchant of Venice.1 In sharp contrast, Aaron, Shakespeare's first Moor, who makes his unforgettable appearance in Titus Andronicus, cares little about how others perceive him, finding in his color no reason for embarrassment of self-loathing. No apologist, he is quite comfortable with his hue, never mind that the play's other characters find in his blackness a symbol of negation. A complex and compellingly suave character who revels in inflicting pain on others, he marches to the sound of no drumbeat except his own. Aware as is Morocco of the social stigma attached to nonwhites, Aaron knows that overcoming his racial stereotype is well-nigh impossible in the color-conscious Roman society in which he finds himself. Conditioned to wedding darkness to wickedness like the Romans, Shakespeare's audience would have had no problems with equating a character of ebony shade to human depravity at its very worse. To the Elizabethans, in fact, blackness and evil were so synonymous that this notion spawned social attitudes predicated on the belief that black was always indicative of evil. As intelligent as he is shrewd, Aaron is fully cognizant of the fact that he is vilified because of his ethnicity and thus is predetermined to be Satan's ally. His color, in effect, predisposes him to ignoble deeds. This study proposes to show that “racial determinism” is very much a factor in Titus Andronicus and that it is the pernicious virus eating away at European society. Against such a scourge Aaron must continually wage his own battle, for his color is so inextricably linked to his destiny that it becomes the only barometer against which his personality and conduct are measured. In a very telling sense, the Moor's ends, as he well knows, are fated, but this awareness does not prevent him from constantly and consciously trying to subvert the established order as he perilously negotiates his space as subject and rejects his position as “other.”

The abhorrence of things black was not in any sense unique to the Renaissance. Indeed, the ideology of blackness as detestable had its literary and linguistic antecedents in the ancient world,2 where black became a powerful metaphor for every conceivable type of aberration. By extension, of course, dark-skinned people were tarnished because their complexion rendered them social undesirables, devoid of humanity. Writing in Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French, Christopher Miller puts the allegorical significance of this much-maligned color succinctly into historical perspective:

Discourse in color moves between a reef and a maelstrom. Blackness would appear to be a rock of negativity: from Sanskrit and ancient Greek to modern European languages, black is associated with dirt, degradation, and impurity, as if it were the perfect representation of an idea. In texts from the Ancients on, whether the speaker's attitude is positive or negative in regard to black people, blackness remains a powerful negative element. If black people are deemed blameless, it is usually in spite of their blackness. By actively forgiving and overlooking the color of their skin, one perceives an “inner” whiteness.3

In establishing the tradition, Classical writers had given powerful poetic expression to their society's assumption that dark skin was a conspicuous badge of dishonor. To Renaissance scholars looking to the antique world for models, such stellar literary lineage was of great importance in helping them to find their own distinct voices. Instrumental, too, in influencing the Elizabethans were the teachings of the early Church fathers as well as the plays of their Medieval forebears. In carrying on the practice, these two groups continued to perpetuate the color myth, attesting to how widespread was the belief that black was akin to sin.4 With such precursors to guide them in the process of giving dramatic expression to a dominant social belief, Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew they had found the necessary tools to create a literature of their own—one that was essentially Renaissance in outlook. In short, they found in the works of the ancients and their more recent predecessors compatible ideas and endowed them with their own cultural traits. As expected, this merging of ancient and modern conventions aided them in fashioning their own fable of blackness as they brought their own individual visions to bear on the matter. In Titus, for example, Shakespeare expropriated the convention of disparaging blackness from its textual descendants to accommodate his own worldview. In so doing, he was able to articulate the racial attitudes of his own times by transforming and distilling the ancient themes to suit the purposes of the Elizabethan stage.

Winthrop D. Jordan points out in White Over Black that the English had long equated everything that was despicable and offensive with blackness. According to him, in their eyes “Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.”5 Further illuminating these preconceptions, Jordan finds that whiteness and blackness stood distanced from each other at opposite poles, with the former representing fairness as opposed to the latter, which was closely allied to foulness. In this atmosphere he writes, “White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil” (7). By deliberately choosing as villain a black Moor,6 the figure who customarily bears the ancestral curse of Ham,7 Shakespeare was underscoring the precarious position of the “Other” in the England of his day. As a neophyte dramatist versed in feeling the pulse of his times, he chose to exploit a racial symbol that he knew would evoke negative responses. Surely it could not have been lost upon him that Aaron's dark skin, standing as it does in such striking visual contrast to the pale skin of the other characters, would have alerted his audience to the ominous presence of evil. Since in the Elizabethan conception, the Moor's color typified his state of grace, Aaron could not possibly have escaped all the unpleasant associations with degeneracy from the very outset. Not least among a host of unsavory traits that Moors were said to possess were grossness, brutishness, and debauched sexual natures, all highly suggestive of innate animalistic qualities. To a Renaissance play-going audience, such repulsive characteristics connected Moors to the demonic powers that inhabited the nether world. In a very real sense, then, since Aaron obviously is not made in God's image, he would be cast quite naturally in the mold of one of the damned, an ally of Satan himself, the proverbial Prince of Darkness. But if he is of the devil's party, he is quite unashamedly so, and he rides roughshod over all others in the play. No noble savage he! That he plays the barbarian in the midst to the hilt as if the Roman world were his personal stage is not all that surprising, given his understanding of his position as “Other” in a society that denies him any measure of humanity. Astute and calculating, he knows what is expected of him, how great a role his skin tone plays in defining who he is. Thus, as Gordon Ross Smith surmises, Aaron epitomizes “the well-known phenomenon of a person's becoming what he was thought by the people around him to be.”8

By any standard, Moors on the Elizabethan stage were looked upon as strange creatures, startlingly different in appearance, socially and culturally dissimilar, the highly peculiar and suspect Other. Usually, such characters were perceived of as being ruthless, diabolical, and dangerous. If they were like Othello, the Noble Moor of Shakespeare's later play, the chance of integrating peacefully into an alien society was, at best, still a rather difficult feat to accomplish. Thus, although Othello desperately strives for grace, the prognosis is much the same as it is for Aaron. In essence, the racial malady that afflicts European society is so deadly that looking beyond color for healing is not possible. No matter how honorable Othello is, no matter how virtuous, dignified, noble and well-meaning, ultimately, he must lose his way. Because he is black, he cannot escape the curse that his contaminating color imposes upon him in a world not his own, and he must, thus, in the eyes of Venetian society, succumb to the dark powers within as if his hue dictated that his ends would be fated. It is as if he is, from birth, like Winterbourne in Henry James' Daisy Miller, “booked to make a mistake.”9 For his part, Aaron fully epitomizes the prototype, the inherently evil, vile, and villainous Moor whose soul could never be washed white. All too conscious that he is viewed as satanic, he opts to employ Lucifer's prerogative—to go fourth and sin as much as he pleases. Rather than striving for decency and goodness, which would be pointless in this deterministic venue, Aaron positions himself so that he can become an active player in charting his own course. In repudiating the limitations which Roman society places upon him, he knowingly decides not to become an unhappy prisoner of skin tone in an overwhelmingly hostile white environment. By striking out against his oppressors, Aaron is able to wreak havoc, and he does so with sadistic and sardonic pleasure.

As Shakespeare presents the situation, Aaron is even further removed from the realm of grace than other Moors on the English stage, in light of the fact that in Titus no character truly resides inside this charmed circle. Indeed, this exalted sphere is home to no one in this drama in which social, political, and familial structures have broken down, leaving no stabilizing influences. Framed as it is by this rupturing of society, the grim world of the play is one in which smoldering hostilities and horrifying acts of revenge hold sway, canceling out, in the process, dignity, goodness, honor, and decency. Thus, it is not alone the fact that Aaron's color makes him the symbol of depravity in his work; indeed, as Titus himself so aptly sums up the social climate, “Rome is but a wilderness of tigers.”10 In employing the jungle metaphor, Shakespeare is accentuating the fact that beasts in the guise of men prowl the imperial city, holding it at bay. There is no question that the Romans in Titus Andronicus were living in deeply troubled and troubling times. Undeniably, the world of the play is one in which discord reigns, much of it exacerbated by Titus' refusal to accept the throne offered him. More than anything else, it is this tragic error, coupled with his sanctioning of Saturninus as emperor, that sets in motion the political and familial chaos that will rend the fabric of Roman society. But to no one's surprise, it is in Aaron's fertile mind that revenge takes form and meaning. Entering the play in the unenviable position of monstrous Other, he is, quite clearly, the dram of evil that will pollute a Rome already tottering on the brink of anarchy. In this decadent city of predators, however, where fantastic horrors are commonplace, cynical Aaron is in no sense the only one who preys on others; rather, he is just one among the many transgressors against decency and humanity. If he seems like a coiled snake ready to spring, he is not the only serpent in the fallen Roman world. In point of fact, Shakespeare shows that in the den of hissing vipers that is Rome, there is no line of demarcation separating the civilized and the unenlightened inhabitants. Whether they be Romans, Goths or Moors, the characters all display debasing and dehumanizing traits: all ghoulishly relish revenge; all suffer from the spiritual malaise that afflicts Rome; all are in need of grace. In the largest view, the most arresting image that emerges is that of frenzied cannibals devouring each other. With no truly virtuous people to maintain the rather sordid cause of humanity in this jungle-world, so eerily populated by scavengers and vultures feeding on one another, Aaron certainly is no worse than the rest. He is, after all, the primitive Moor, who is supposed to behave this way!

Jack D’Amico argues in The Moor in English Renaissance Drama that in such distressing sociopolitical settings, outsiders are always natural targets of blame. He contends, rightly, that in common with other civilizations at risk, European societies could not accept reponsibility for the moral and social dilemmas with which they were faced. As a result, they had to find scapegoats—the strangers in their midst—to shoulder the burden for whatever was amiss in their world. In this way, he writes, they were able to absolve themselves of any accountability:

The Moor as villain becomes a convenient locus for those darkly subversive forces that threaten European society from within but can be projected onto the outsider. The destructive forces of lust and violence are thus distanced by being identified with a cultural, religious, or racial source of evil perceived as the inversion of European norms.11

Along with the rest of Europe, Renaissance England was exposed to the hazards of complex and changing times. In coming to terms with the religious, social, philosophical, political, and intellectual currents astir in the era, Elizabethans had to deal with the anxiety that always comes from apprehensiveness of the new. Clearly, their perceptions of reality arose from ideological and cultural preconceptions that were due to a very large extent to their desire to define themselves and interpret their position on the world's stage. With the reemergence of the classics along with colonial expansion, the voyages of discovery, the slave trade, competition with other European neighbors, and commerce with other countries, the English people were reacting to novel ideas at the same time that they were encountering hitherto unheard-of realms. Unquestionably, the nervous tensions that resulted from the uneasy meeting with non-Caucasians, those mysterious “Other” humans, were a direct consequence of their extreme uncomfortableness in “this brave new world.” This disquietude resulted from fear of the unfamiliar and having to look squarely at the issue of race. In this atmosphere where black was already taboo, no people could be more symbolic of the unknown than dark-skinned Africans, so emblematic of Western culture's long-held irrational fears. According to Jordan, this intersection of black and white was extreme enough to cause consternation by the very nature of abruptness:

The powerful impact which the Negro's color made upon Englishmen must have been owing to suddenness of contact. … England's immediate acquaintance with black-skinned peoples came with relative rapidity. While the virtual monopoly held by Venetian ships in European foreign trade prior to the sixteenth century meant that people much darker than Englishmen were not entirely unfamiliar, really black men were virtually unknown except as vaguely referred to in the hazy literature about the sub-Sahara which had filtered down from antiquity. Native West Africans probably first appeared in London in 1554. … The impact of the Negro's color was the more powerful upon Englishmen … because England's principal contact with Africans came in West Africa and the Congo where men were not merely dark but almost literally black: one of the fairest skinned nations suddenly came face to face with one of the darkest people on earth.(6)

Seeing their own white skin as the epitome of beauty, they naturally found people of black pigmentation and divergent facial features ugly (8). No effortless convergence of the twain here as the example of Aaron among the Romans illustrates so well.

By all indications, the shock of actually being in proximity to a race so dissimilar to their own spurred the Elizabethans to protective action. As a defense mechanism, they called upon their sense of nationalism and ethnic superiority to guide them to new self-definition. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs lent itself to the setting up of national barriers designed to keep nonnatives on the periphery of English society. In their quest to retain their national character and ethnic identity, they propagated the racial myths so prevalent in Titus. Noticeably, almost everyone in the play refers to Aaron's race with disdain,12 holding him culpable for most of Rome's ills. Even before he ever says a word, he stands out conspicuously by color as a menacing figure whose sinister presence bodies ill. In her study “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Emily Bartels comments that prior to his first pronouncement, Aaron, though wordless, speaks volumes:

Tellingly, throughout the opening crisis the Moor stands beside Tamora, silent but threatening in his silence and blackness. After Saturninus' regime is securely in place, he gains a voice, and with it the capacity to contrive, control, and corrupt.13

As a Moorish character, Aaron is supremely qualified to epitomize the contrariness and unloveliness associated with difference both in the Classical and Elizabethan worlds, a fact that Shakespeare makes clear.

Without doubt Titus Andronicus is a chronicle of Renaissance beliefs and ideas. One of the most popular plays of its time,14 it gave dramatic and cogent expression to the concerns of the playwright's world. Although a novice, Shakespeare wisely chose to experiment with a dramatic form that had paid rich dividends for Thomas Kyd and others. However, in employing the revenge theme, he was doing more than delighting playhouse audiences. In truth, he was also using the genre to excoriate a society that held up classical virtues as ideals, while indulging in typical human vices such as envy, malice, self-interest, deception and corruption. That theatergoers could identify with the Roman world of Titus, where rape, racism, cannibalism, dismemberment, and murder took place, is not surprising, considering the fact that both the playworld and the dramatist's milieu mirrored the collective psychoses of societies in varying states of flux. As is so often the case, when such national and social dilemmas occur, violence results. In his definitive study, Violence and the Sacred, René Girard discusses how corrosive violence is, labeling it a force that gnaws away at the human psyche until it is finally unleashed. He declares that “Violence too long held in check will overflow its bounds—and woe to those who happen to be nearby.”15Titus proves the truth of this statement in that once Aaron realizes that there are familial and political hostilities brewing, he sets the mischief afoot that will usher in the cycle of violence that follows.

Violence is the Moor's instrument of empowerment. Rather than surrender to his racial legacy, Aaron defies the forces ranged against him by setting the wheels of violence in motion as a means to gain his ends. Ethical and moral constraints do not weigh heavily upon him, in great part because he feels no bond of kinship with the inhabitants of a society that forces dehumanization upon him. In the absence of the usual symbols of stability—family, beliefs, religion, traditions—he finds himself summarily cast adrift, rendered morally bankrupt by those who deride his difference. With no communal and familial ties to bind him, he is free to be a law unto himself, and in so doing, find his creative outlet through the plotting of violence. Estranged and isolated from those around him, Aaron must, of necessity, find ways to turn the tables on his oppressors. Moreover, in him, Shakespeare creates a character with no biography; in fact, any history he has is tied solely to his racial heritage. His societal dislocation thus is made even more startlingly total. So often defamed, the Moor, in accordance with his pariah status, decides to take vengeance on a race that holds him in contempt. Undoubtedly, he is avenging himself on white society for the many inequities it has visited upon him, foremost among these its refusal to grant him dignity and stature as a human being. What first seems like “motiveless malignity,” then, is, conceivably, retaliation for ancient ills and past wrongs. Such a view is supported by Gordon Ross Smith in Literature and Psychology:

The text of the play does not oblige us to accept Aaron's evil-doing as motiveless. To a medieval or Elizabethan audience the devil had commonly been represented as black, and by backward association we may suppose a black man a devil. … Along with his blackness supposedly went ill-doing, and he accepted that, too, … thereby at once conforming to what was thought of him and revenging himself from social acceptance just as surely as Shylock had been excluded.16

Simply put, this vilest of transgressors sins because he feels he is sinned against. When Shylock poses his famous questions in The Merchant of Venice, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? / If you tickle us, do we not laugh? / If you poison us, do we not die? / And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (III.i.57-59), he speaks not only for himself as a Jew, but also for Aaron and other outsiders. In all likelihood the racial bigotry that the other characters so blatantly display spurs Aaron to vengeful action; however, the rage of centuries spilling across the ages also evidently dwells in him. For such a man, there can be no painful confrontation with sin, no self-tormenting struggle with conscience. An opportunist, he knows most assuredly that he must be vigilant in looking for chances to wreak havoc on those who have ill-used him, past and present. If such openings are presented to him, he will employ them to his advantage, without misgivings. As he bides his time holding his long-suppressed anger in check, Aaron displays no red-hot fury; rather, he remains calm, detached and controlled, icy cold almost, as he waits to put into effect his deviously conceived machinations. Fortuitously, the Andronicus family conflict provides him with a forum to give form to his heretofore fanciful imaginings. Here, offered a stage to effect revenge and in so doing forge an existence in antagonistic surroundings, his ire turns fiery and lethal. “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, / Blood and revenge are hammering in my head” (II.iii.38-39), he exults. With violence as a touchstone, he can now map his heady course toward chaos and confrontation. His reign of terror just beginning, he studiedly dedicates himself to plunging Rome and the Andronici further into nightmare. That he succeeds in the fullest measure can be attributed to the fact that he is always one step ahead, carefully crafting his plans for attack. By keeping his eyes and ears open, the Moor strikes when the moment is propitious for him. In essence, this is his “time to murder and create.”17

As Tamora's longtime lover, Aaron is in the position to help the new empress settle her score with Titus; indeed, he becomes the teacher to his paramour and her offspring and instructs them in the art of revenge. This is not to suggest that Aaron is Tamora's Mephistopheles, for, in point of fact, she is already well-versed in perfidy; indeed, she commits herself to vengeance as soon as the Andronici kill her oldest son. When as the new empress she promises to find a way to “massacre them [the Andronici] all” (I.i.450), we suspect that this is no idle threat. In Aaron, she finds a worthy accomplice for this goal. Possessed of the appetite for revenge, an imagination that can wax venomous, a vehement scorn for others, and an inborn boldness and daring, Aaron is eminently qualified to make Tamora's task a good deal easier. Given the plot to write his drama of blood, he sets about translating his schemes into action with stunning swiftness. Eldred Jones argues in Othello's Countrymen that the Moor truly is in his element as he pens the script for vicious reprisal. In reveling in the carnage and devastation he causes, Aaron, in Jones' opinion, is very much the creative artist who finds his muse in the revenge motif:

Aaron [is] an artist in villainy. … He is the confident artist delighting in his own sense of timing, and in his ability to manipulate his material. He takes a ghoulish pride in his work, is very conscious of his own wit, and despises those who are witless enough to be taken in by him.18

Certainly, Aaron's love of plotting and manipulating is evident throughout most of the play. But by all indications, it is not alone the working out of the performance that so enraptures him as Jones infers, but more importantly watching his pale-complexioned victims squirm. Toward this end, he plays on the other characters as if they were puppets, whose strings he relentlessly pulls at will, all the while enjoying the tumult which he sets astir. As a master schemer, he apprehends the importance of careful preparation. From laying the trap for Martius and Quintus in the forest to planning the rape of Lavinia, Aaron leaves nothing to chance. But although he directs, stages, and often acts in this blood-filled drama, he is never truly the divinity that shapes his own ends, much as he wishes to think so. Always Shakespeare reminds us that Aaron's personal script is pre-penned by a tense society that rationalizes and makes comprehensible his supposed inbred penchant for evil, a point which Emily Bartels underscores:

For while Shakespeare brings Aaron near the center of the staged court, accords him a voice of eloquence and knowledge, and allows his schemes to shape the plot, he concomitantly keeps the Moor on the outside, literally and figuratively, and both answers and promotes the darkest vision of the stereotype. Ironically, although the play creates a chaos in which distinctions between right and wrong, insider and outsider, self and other are problematically obscured, it does not challenge the racial stereotype. To the contrary, Titus Andronicus presents the stereotype as the one realistic measure of difference, the one stable and unambiguous sign of otherness. (442)

Significantly, though, much as others denigrate Aaron, the man himself is never ill at ease with his pigmentation. As he views the situation, dark is vastly superior to pale. In Act IV, Scene II, in which he upbraids Chiron and Demetrius for wishing their newborn half-brother dead, he holds white versus black up to the looking glass and triumphantly finds the latter color the stronger and more self-sufficient: “Ye white-lim’d walls! Ye alehouse painted signs!” he taunts Tamora's simpering sons. “Coal-black is better than another hue, / In that it scorns to bear another hue; / For all the water in the ocean / Can never turn the swan's black legs to white” (IV.ii.98-103). For him, blackness serves, moreover, as an impenetrable mask, a protective armor through which neither verbal nor physical abuse can pierce. In essence, no one can divine the mystery of this alien of dark mien; no soul is privy to his thoughts; none can view his mind's construction by simply looking at his face. Knowing that realistically there can be no erasure of difference, Aaron, in effect, validates his own existence by aggressively rejecting the prescribed negative notions of color. He does so by ridiculing whiteness, which he sees as the weak and “treacherous hue” that betrays by blushing. By way of contrast, as a Moor, he can take refuge symbolically behind his opaque color, while appearing to be the perfect servant. He can, in the words of Hamlet, “smile, and smile, and be a villain” (I.v.108), and no one is the wiser until it is too late. Seen from this perspective, blackness preserves the outward seeming while shielding the inner man. Aaron's color, in this instance, stands him in good stead, for he can use it as a means of self-concealment. Interestingly, African-American writers would later make much of the ability of blacks to hide their feelings from others in order to exist in an American society scarred by racism. As explained by Ralph Ellison,

the Negro's masking is motivated not so much by fear as by profound rejection of the image created to usurp his identity. Sometimes it is for the sheer joy of the joke; sometimes to challenge those who presume, across the psychological distance created by race matters, to know his identity. … [He] wear[s] the mask for purposes of aggression as well as for defense. … In short, the motives hidden behind the mask are as numerous as the ambiguities the mask conceals.19

In a very real sense, Ellison's characterization holds true for Shakespeare's Moor despite the great interval between the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries. To a very large extent, Aaron, so much reviled because of his race, has mastered the art of inscrutability. Through this means, he is able to screen himself effectively from the eyes of the world. With his psychological mask always in place, Aaron, Janus-faced, looks askance at those around him in jovial derision, knowing that they view him as their racial inferior. His perennial amusement thus is always at the expense of those who feel themselves better than he. Oftentimes in Titus Andronicus, he might seem to be laughing hilariously with the Romans and the Goths, but in actuality he is always snickering scornfully at them.

That Aaron also loves the feelings of superiority and power that villainy gives him must also he factored into the complex equation that is the Moor. In his quest for vengeance, such a man as this must of necessity boast of his skill and gloat over the misfortune of his unfortunate, less clever victims. And he does so with gleeful and malicious vitality. After he cuts off Titus' hands, for example, he gives malevolent expression to his delight: “O, how this villainy / Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!” (III.i.202-03). Indeed, his ominous laughter, heard so often in the play, is that of a self-satisfied rascal who chooses to wield the only authority that his blackness gives him—the power of villainy. Aaron's crimes are of course no cause for mirth, but at times he seems much like a comic villain whose humor entraps the reader. Even while casting his menacing shadow over the play, he still manages to exude his disarming wit, neither evincing any shred of conscience nor offering any apologies for his misdeeds. Notwithstanding his evident short-comings, thus he captures and holds our attention as no other character in the play does.

Writing in Laughter, Pain and Wonder, David Richman compares Aaron to two other noteworthy villains of towering stature: Shakespeare's Richard III and Marlowe's Barabas. Labeling them “creatures of splendid melodrama,” he finds that “spectators are never allowed to forget the suffering they cause, but the audience's sense of that suffering is mitigated by a sense of their pleasure in causing it.” In short, he continues, “the audience roots for the villains, carried along by sheer glee in evil.”20 Frequently in Titus, there is strong temptation to pass judgment on Aaron, because his spiritual and moral bankruptcy is so absolutely complete, but more often than not, we are forestalled by the power of his engaging and mesmerizing wit. As Richard T. Brucher finds, “It is not the love of violence that distinguishes Aaron from the Romans, but the witty conception of it.”21 In his introductory essay to his 1984 edition of the play, Eugene Waith comments along the same lines, pointing out that despite his depravity, Aaron still manages to emerge as an engaging character in the manner of Jonson's Volpone, a smoothly accomplished trickster, who is unfettered by scruples and unencumbered by conscience:

The ingenuity of Aaron's schemes and his sheer vitality in carrying them out give him the ambiguous appeal of a Richard III, whose cleverness can be seen as admirable even though his downfall is desired. When such characters are presented from a comic perspective, there is an even greater temptation to suspend moral judgment and join in their cruel laughter at the expense of their victims. Shakespeare offers precisely this temptation in the first scene of the fifth act, where Aaron tells of his trickery with … relish. In so doing he becomes no less villainous but, for the moment, undeniably more attractive.22

At once fiendish and captivating, Aaron is self-assured, haughty, witty, bold, intelligent, and fearless. Not surprisingly, despite his alien status, he is not the type of villain who slithers along the fringes of Roman society afraid to look with contempt upon those who view him as an anomaly. Rather, he bestrides the play, confident and unafraid, unsusceptible to threat or intimidation. Looming largely as a figure shrouded in darkness, Aaron seems at times to be both villian and hero. Not unlike Seneca's Atreus, he dominates the action, often overshadowing Titus, the play's protagonist. He does so almost from the minute he utters his first words in Act II and never truly relinquishes this central role.

Scoundrel though he is, Aaron, unlike both Tamora and Titus, puts child welfare before all other considerations. Tellingly, he refuses to lift his hand against his son, in marked contrast to the Andronici patriarch, who slays two of his children; moreover, he never contemplates infanticide as the empress does. Unlike these two, he never disowns his own flesh and blood. Whatever his profoundly moral failings, Aaron is, ironically, the one character in the play who comes closest to displaying the solicitous qualities that one normally associates with parents. Manifesting immediate paternal tenderness, he contemptuously disobeys Tamora's decree that the baby, the fruit of their illicit love affair, be killed. Doubtless she views her newborn as a threat to her reputation and position as consort to Saturninus; certainly, his color will proclaim to the world that she had “so preposterously … err[ed].”23 Not without irony is the fact that as the play opens, the captive queen piteously pleads with Titus to spare the life of Alarbus, her oldest son, as a distressed and loving mother. No such importunings for her youngest; instead, for him she ordains death, displaying none of the maternal instincts that she exhibits for her first-born. Rather, in this case, she selfishly seeks to protect herself, caring little that she is authorizing that most unpalatable of crimes, child-murder. In remarkable contrast, Aaron takes pride in the baby, feeling instant kinship. For this unlikeliest of doting fathers, there is an immediate and inextricable bond with his son. No longer “himself alone,” Aaron views the boy as his only link in an alien world. In short, the child is the one person whose life touches his in so special and personal a way. Not surprisingly, when the Nurse derisively refers to the infant as a “devil” (IV.ii.64), “a joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue” (IV.ii.66), Aaron takes umbrage, immediately going on the offensive. “Is black so base a hue?” he asks (IV.ii.71). Once more, it is a question of racial perception. Where the white woman sees before her a creature “as loathsome as a toad / Amongst the fair-faced breeders of our clime” (IV.ii.67-68), the proud black father gazes fondly at the child, beholding “a beauteous blossom” (IV.ii.72). Loveliness and ugliness here are clearly in the eyes of the beholder.

For Aaron, his “first-born son and heir” (IV.ii.92) is a tiny being made in his sire's very own image, the triumphant embodiment of blackness. That the child means a great deal to him is evident when he informs the Nurse in no uncertain terms that Tamora's wishes are of no consequence to him at this point:

My mistress is my mistress; this my self;
The vigour and the picture of my youth:
This before all the world do I prefer;
This maugre all the world will I keep safe,
Or some of you shall smoke for it in Rome.


Without doubt, Aaron's narcissistic male ego is brought to bear on his feelings. Undeniably, he sees the infant as an extension of himself. But more than pride in his male potency or even his obvious celebration of blackness is his affirmation of his humanity, the capacity to care for someone other than himself. Aaron's concern for another person, albeit his own child, is the play's greatest surprise. This cynical man, for whom nothing prior to his son's birth is sacrosanct, in actuality, awakens to love. He might be brother to none, but he wishes desperately to be father to his son. This parental gentleness, so totally unexpected in Aaron, shows itself from the moment he first sees the baby. He will protect his child at all costs, notwithstanding Lucius'24 desire to kill both erring father and blameless son. When Rome's next leader commands the soldiers to hang the infant along with his father, he is, in a very real sense, sanctioning infanticide, blinded by his inability to see beyond what he perceives to be the baby's sullying pigmentation. But Aaron will not be thwarted, intent as he is on shielding the boy from harm. Instead, once more he exerts his tremendous will, astutely negotiating with Lucius to save his son's life, uncaring of his own fate:

Lucius, save the child;
And bear it from me to the empress.
If thou do this, I’ll show thee wondrous things
That highly may advantage thee to hear:
If thou wilt not, befall what may befall,
I’ll speak no more but “Vengeance rot you all!”


His bargain sealed, Aaron enumerates a list of all the cruelties he supposedly has done in his lifetime, expressing the wish that he could live to do many more. Whether or not he really commits these vicious deeds can only be a matter of conjecture. With the exception of his severing of Titus' hand and his killing of the Nurse, we do not actually see him perpetrating any other crimes. Indeed, more than anything else, the tales of unspeakable horrors that he tells appear to be nothing more than the hubristic boasts of a man who refuses to let anyone triumph over him, especially so as he faces what is most surely his day of doom. He will go out no cowardly sinner, but rather as an ignoble and defiant reprobate, blithely verbalizing his questionable misdeeds:

But I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.


Of more import than the confessions themselves is the fact that Aaron's account of his intrigues saves the life of the child. Perhaps his fantastic repertoire of past criminal activity is his ingenious way of getting Lucius' ear. Once more, assuming the role of the archetypal virulent and vicious Moor, Aaron trades upon the stereotype to achieve his goal, which, in this instance, is to prevent his son's death.

As is so much the pattern in whatever he does, Aaron takes control of the situation, and once more he looms larger than he should at this, his moment of reckoning. Thus, where Lucius appears as a vengeful, mean-spirited, and unforgiving leader, Aaron appropriates the more positive role of concerned father. That he shows no fear of the hell that Shakespeare's audience would have assumed most definitely awaited him is in itself noteworthy, in large measure because this stance diminishes the punishment of hanging that Lucius first decrees for him. Adroitly, he upstages Rome's new head. Effectively setting up an arresting tableau, Shakespeare situates Aaron atop the scaffold from which he is scheduled to be hanged. Spewing venom as he scornfully looks down from his elevated perch, Aaron quite literally towers above Lucius in Scene I of Act V, shrinking the other man's stature at this most crucial time. Unlike Iago, to whom he has been likened, Aaron refuses to keep his silence after his crimes come to light. If, indeed, speaking is the means whereby he will be able to prevent his offspring's death, he will utilize this method to get his way. In truth, his hectoring rhetoric serves another purpose, since it communicates the idea that gods do not exist in Aaron's world. Once more, in fact, Shakespeare is showing his villain's difference by using the conventional image of the godless Moor. Needless to say, Aaron's impious disregard for religion constitutes yet another source of alienation, but as expected, the opprobrium of the Romans matters nothing to him. He knows he is thought of as an enemy of religion, an infidel. As such he wields his godlessness as a weapon to prove his independence and self-sufficiency in contrast to Lucius, who, according to Aaron, is “an idiot [who] holds his bauble for a god” (V.i.79). If deities are not of great moment to Aaron, devils do not figure largely in his universe either. But he does concede that if perchance fiends do exist, he would not mind casting his lot with them. Evidently, he feels that these infernal beings would give him demonic voice, and thus the pleasure of orally slaying his enemies in the hereafter:

If there be devils, would I were a devil,
To live and burn in everlasting fire,
So I might have your company in hell,
But to torment you with my bitter tongue.


Realizing that nothing he can say can counter Aaron's blistering verbal onslaught, Lucius remains mostly quiet in Act V, Scene I. In the face of such vituperative articulation of the villain's seething hatred, Lucius appears somewhat intimidated, unable to assert himself. However, Shakespeare is, in reality, setting Aaron up for his promised fall. As the wheel comes full circle for him, it becomes apparent that his seeming domination of Lucius is nothing more than a ploy by the playwright to make his villain/hero's fall all the greater. Always he reminds us that in this conflict between the black Moor and the white Roman, the former cannot win. Conceivably, the Elizabethans would see Aaron's furious rage as the splendidly rendered death-defying cry of a doomed man moving inexorably toward his fate. Once he is made to descend the platform, Aaron's control dwindles, and by the end of the play he is a mere pawn at the mercy of Lucius. Accordingly, rather than have Lucius stand up to Aaron, Shakespeare engages him more profitably in hatching the grotesque punishment that he feels befits this basest of criminals—burial from the chest down and eventual starvation. But characteristically, Aaron refuses to make his captor's job easy; rather, he sets the stage yet again, this time for his final performance. Once more, he disdainfully attempts to wrest Lucius' power from him, deftly manipulating his terrible sentence into another display of resistance. True to form, he enacts this, his last role, exceedingly well—with the bravura and energy that we have come to expect from him, this despite the fact that he is about to be planted firmly in the earth as if he were no more than a tree. When Aaron finally is reduced to less than a beast of the field, Lucius will have inflicted a lethal blow from which he will not be able to recover. But strangely enough, although Lucius, surnamed Pius,25 is clearly the victor in this most decisive round, he is neither an imposing presence nor a dominant and gracious figure. He emerges, instead, as just another vindictive character in the grisly parade of the play's retaliation-seeking avengers, bent more on devising inhuman punishments to settle old scores than on healing Rome's wounds.

Aaron, the stranger who has never been allowed to feel at home on Roman soil, is forced into an ignominious exit, his denouement, reduction to a torso and existence in a limbo world tethering precariously between death and life, little more than a leaf blown about by the wind. Ironically, he finds no resting place at his journey's end, since he will be denied not only a normal death but also the return to dust to which all human beings tend. But Aaron, his insolence intact, refuses to go either silently or gently to his doom. Instead, displaying the towering rage that now fuels his every utterance, he takes his unrepentant farewell, still impudent, still unbowed:

Ah, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done;
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will.
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.


Irreligious Aaron, having dropped his smiling mask, snarls his way to his end neither believing that, nor caring if, he has a soul. What he most wants to do is retain his selfhood. As such, he will remain doggedly a man, spitting in the face of a society that has tried to emasculate him psychologically and socially. Still isolated in this his final inglorious moment upon the stage, Aaron attempts to prove one last time that his skin color may set him apart, but his spirit cannot be broken. Hence, no remorse, no apology, no regrets—a rebel with a cause to the end.

Shakespeare evidently was very much interested in presenting Aaron as a character endowed with humanity, despite the racial categorizations that the play trades upon. Understanding that Aaron is not without human worth, Eldred Jones makes the point that in having his villain/hero respond so positively to his son, Shakespeare invests his hero with human qualities:

Aaron emerges as a human being after all. His character … as a monster would have been all of a piece had he decided to regard the child … as an embarrassment. But Shakespeare veers away from this easier creation of a bogeyman, and makes Aaron, in spite of his villainy, into a human being. (59)

However, this very quality with which his creator invests Aaron, some critics take away. In fact, no less than for the Elizabethans, for most of the play's commentators Aaron is evil incarnate, a consummate and despicable villain devoid of any redeeming qualities. Put bluntly, for them Aaron is paradoxically less than, yet more than, a man; he is at once a black beast and a veritable demon. Representative of this viewpoint is James Calderwood, who finds no shred of humanity in Aaron; indeed, he goes so far as to make the Dracula connection in his book Shakespeare and the Denial of Death. In it he wonders “if there are enough crosses and sharpened stakes in Transylvania to harry this monster to his grave.”26 From his purview, Aaron deserves far worse than he gets. To him, the Moor is an animal in human guise, an absolutely hideous monster who is far too malevolent to die, leaving behind as he does his accursed heir. Indeed, he sees Aaron's offspring as the living representation of his father's evil. As if inheriting paternal sins were not heavy enough a load to be placed on his tiny shoulders, the boy, according to Calderwood, is also the embodiment of a damned racial heritage:

[T]he villain is symbolically immortal. … More than that, however, the very viciousness of his punishment implies the kind of despairing overkill that comes from an attempt to destroy something more or less, or at any rate other than human, something that does not die like us. And to be sure whatever it is that pulses in Aaron pulses so strongly that his end is by no means certain. (199)

That the child is guilty of no sin other than being born black enters not at all into this critic's consciousness. Like the play's characters and its Elizabethan audience, Calderwood grounds his vision in the thinking of Shakespeare's era, and as a result arbitrarily links Aaron's offspring to his hereditary curse. In so doing, he brands the baby a thing of evil, the devil's spawn, whose presence will cast its blighting shadow over newly sanctified Rome. His color a mark of alienation, the boy will have no choice but to take his father's place as the intruding serpent in the soon to be restored Roman Garden of Eden. Curiously, former sworn enemies, Romans and Goths unite at the play's conclusion to bring an end to the civil war, but the little Moor remains on the outside, Rome's doors shut against his dark face. In a very telling sense, Aaron's son may well have been better off dead, for he will have to bear the yoke of lineage from the cradle to the grave. Without doubt, the sins of his father most certainly will be visited upon him. No matter what his leanings, the decks will be stacked heavily against him in much the same way as they had been against Aaron. Fated to be a lost soul and destined to be forever lodged outside the realm of grace, the infant will find no safe haven in the new Rome where Goths and Romans, the strangest of bedfellows, are now dubious allies.

Whatever designation is applied to Aaron, the fact remains that he has few options available to him as a Moor. Interestingly, Eldred Jones asserts that if nothing else, Aaron certainly had free will and therefore could have embraced good instead of evil had he so desired:

[Aaron's]… choice of evil is deliberate. There is implied in his behaviour a conscious turning away from grace, which is presumed to be open to him. … There is thus, even in the presentation of a stereotype, an element of personal responsibility and deliberate choice. (54)

As a realist he knows full well that no matter what he does, his color renders him an outcast, unworthy of divine guidance; thus, he will follow his predestined course, the path to evil. That he apprehends this concept is glaringly apparent after he lops off Titus' hand. Joyfully applauding himself, he gives jubilant expression to his belief that since he is damned by hue anyhow, he might as well enjoy himself. “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace, / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (III.i.204-05), he chuckles. If in fact he deliberately makes of evil a virtue as Jones argues, this puts him in the company of Satan, no great surprise here! Whatever his connection to Lucifer, however, Aaron is clever enough to have figured out that wickedness can empower him as goodness and decency never can. Eliot Tokson reasons that “if [Elizabethans accepted the idea that] blackness is the color indigenous to hell, it was not likely that the black man could escape the consequences of inevitable association. … [H]e was made to play the role of hell's agent.”27 For his part, Aaron peforms the part remarkably well, never once deluding himself into believing that striving for redemption or divine sanction would render him attractive and thus acceptable to those who view him as malevolent and abominable. Doubtless he feels that to have done otherwise would have been to give in to the tenets of a world governed by racial prejudice.

In his fascinating essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” Ralph Ellison observes that even in twentieth-century fiction, an African-American character is not allowed to be a well-rounded human being:

Too often what is presented as the American Negro emerges an oversimplified clown, a beast, or an angel. Seldom is he drawn as that sensitively focused process of opposites, of good and evil, of instinct and intellect, of passion and spirituality, which great literary art has projected as the image of man. (43)

So it had been for Shakespeare's Moors; so it was for Aaron; so it will be for his son. In a very real sense, aside from the literary aspect of character portrayal, Ellison's comments underscore an unsettling truth: the fact that the passage of time has not wrought great changes in society's conceptions of the color black and those endowed with this hue. Indeed, the associations of black as emblematic of evil in eras past have survived to the fullest measure in our own distressing times. Seemingly, ancient fictions die hard. But Aaron rejects sitting idly by, miserably fettered by his so-called inherited sins. Rather, when the opportunity arises to rid himself of the shackles that restrain him because of his ethnicity, he boldly confronts his situation within Roman society, refusing to bear humbly the yoke of race. Instead, he strikes back at a world that reviles him because of his color. If his refusal to accept the reality of powers beyond his own depends upon trickery to alter events, this is probably due to the fact that this is the only avenue open to him. Very much his own justice system, Aaron is a lone adversary attempting to reshape the power wielded by the Romans and the Goths. That he succeeds only in propagating his ethnic stereotype in the eyes of the other characters attests to how much Shakespeare understood his audience's conception of the Moor as a racially inferior Other. As Joyce Green MacDonald points out,

Shakespeare fully voices the fundamental Otherness of his Moorish villain. … The play understands his blackness as the sign of absolute resistance to incorporation in any system of social or moral order originating outside himself.28

In this early play, at least, good and evil could not coalesce in a character with black skin. Aaron, however, makes his presence felt and gives triumphant expression to his own personal conviction that black is not, in fact, the base hue that his detractors assume it to be. Shakespeare evidently concurs when he shows that his villain/hero is not a mere one-dimensional errant knave, but a splendidly witty and defective character who manages to assert the human worth everyone denies him. Although his son, the traditional “seed of time,” will not grow in grace on Roman soil, Aaron's offspring will reappear in Venice, full-grown, bearing the name Othello. In this case, good and evil will be able to coexist in a person of dark complexion. The Moor, though still condemned to bear the crushing weight of race, will emerge as a tragic hero, experiencing in some measure many of the rights and privileges that such stalwart protagonists enjoy. Sinning and suffering, laughing and despairing, winning and losing, loving and hating will serve, by turn, to showcase this Moor's human qualities as they never could for the less civilized Aaron. Oftentimes, Othello is a flawed hero, not unlike a Hamlet, a Lear, a Macbeth, but he is still unable to traverse the ethnic divide successfully. Always like Aaron, he is a fated character whose pigmentation matters greatly. In short, his identity is shaped by his blackness in much the same sense as Aaron's. As Othello's literary ancestor, Aaron, Shakespeare's trailblazing Moor, leaps boldly into the consciousness of the Elizabethans, daring to assert that black is a hue like any other, no more base than white.


  1. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. Lamar, The Folger Library General Reader's Shakespeare (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957) II.i.1. Further references to this text will be cited parenthetically.

  2. In his fascinating study Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne, Anthony Barthelemy traces the literary usage back to the antique world. He quotes the following line (in translation) from Horace's Satires, Epistles, Ars Poetic to make his point: “This is a black, Roman; beware this” (2). He cites, too, a poem from the sixth century A.D. from the Codex Salmasianus that offers powerful evidence of the scorn with which the ancients looked upon blackness. As quoted in translation from Barthelemy's text, the verse reads:

    The son of Dawn, foster son of rising Phoebus,
    Produced black thousands of his race.
    Running to aid the Trojans with inauspicious omen,
    He produceeded at once to die by the sword of the descendant of Pelius.
    Already then it is shown how Troy awaits her fall,
    When Priam accepts black help. (2)
  3. Christopher Miller, Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985) 29.

  4. Barthelemy discusses, too, the fact that the early Christians continued the tradition of linking sin with blackness and whiteness with purity (2-3).

  5. Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black (New York: Norton, 1968) 7. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  6. Although the term “Moor” could mean anyone other than white in the Renaissance, Aaron is described by everyone in the play as a character with distinctive Negroid features. Thus, I take Moor to mean black here, since all the descriptions of Aaron point to someone with very dark skin.

  7. Ham was the son of Noah who, according to Genesis 9 and 10, saw his father lying naked in a drunken stupor, and unlike his brothers did not cover him or look away. Upon awakening, Noah reportedly cursed Ham, informing him that his destiny would be to serve his brothers forever. Winthrop Jordan finds that tracing the origin of the notion that Africans were the descendents of Ham is a somewhat difficult task. However, he theorizes that some Jewish “Talmudic and Midrashic” writings may have been the source, since these suggested that God darkened Ham's descendents, rendering them ugly. He finds rather curious the fact that such luminaries as Sts. Jerome and Augustine “casually accepted the assumption that Africans were descended from one of several of Ham's four sons, an assumption which became universal despite the obscurity of its origin” (18). In analyzing the Biblical story, Jordan discovers no reference to skin color in Noah's curse. More logically, he argues, the phrase implies that Noah's erring son and his descendents would be slaves (18).

  8. Gordon Ross Smith, “The Credibility of Shakespeare's Aaron,” Literature and Psychology 10 (Winter 1960): 12.

  9. Henry James, “Daisy Miller,” Great Short Stories (New York: Harper, 1966) 54.

  10. William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, ed. J. C. Maxwell, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1987) III.i.54. All future quotations will come from this edition.

  11. Jack D’Amico, The Moor in English Renaissance Drama (Tampa: U of South Florida P, 1991) 2.

  12. With the exception of Tamora, who always calls Aaron her “lovely Moor” or her “lovely Aaron,” all the other major players refer to Aaron's color with disdain. In Act II, Scene III, Bassianus calls him a “swart Cimmerian” (72) who is “spotted, detested, and abominable” (74). A few lines later, Lavinia berates Tamora by calling Aaron the empress' “raven-colored love” (83). For Marcus, Aaron is so like a “black ill-favour’d fly” that he kills the insect. When Titus, too, strikes at the creature, he comments that the fly “comes in likeness of a coal-black Moor” (III.ii.66, 78). Demetrius labels his mother's lover a “hellish dog,” a “foul fiend,” after learning that Tamora has given birth to Aaron's child. Not to be outdone, Lucius, in Act V, characterizes Aaron as an “incarnate devil,” with “a fiend-like face” (i. 40, 45), “a barbarous beastly villain” (i.96) “a ravenous tiger,” an “accursed devil,” an “inhuman dog” (ii.4, 5, 14).

  13. Emily Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41:4 (Winter 1990): 444. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  14. Along with The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Kyd's blood-drenched revenge drams, Titus Andronicus shared the distinction of being one of the sixteenth century's most popular plays.

  15. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991) 30.

  16. Gordon Ross Smith, “The Credibility of Shakespeare's Aaron,” Literature and Psychology 10 (Winter 1960): 12.

  17. Quoted from T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” line 28, The Norton Introduction to Poetry, ed. M. H. Abrams, 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 1981).

  18. Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen (London: Oxford UP, 1965) 55. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  19. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: New American Library, 1966) 69-70. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  20. David Richman, Laughter, Pain, and Wonder (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1990) 64.

  21. Richard T. Brucher. “Tragedy, Laugh On”: Comic Violence in Titus Andronicus,” Renaissance Drama ns 10 (1979): 82.

  22. Eugene Waith's introd. to Titus Andronicus, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984) 64.

  23. William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. Norman Sanders, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957) I.iii.62.

  24. According to A. C. Hamilton, who quotes Holinshed in The Early Shakespeare, “Lucius was the first king of the Britains that received the faith of Jesus Christ” (84); thus Shakespeare's usage of this figure to lead Rome is not arbitrary. Coming from the Latin lucius—“born during the day”—the name “Lucius” means light, an appropriate choice for the character who ultimately restores order and rules Rome at the end of the play. That Lucius' son bears the same name suggests the continuation of the line. In addition, the figure of Lucius appears in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Book II. Characters named Lucius also appear as emissaries of light in Julius Caesar and Cymbeline.

  25. Notwithstanding the fact that Lucius is destined to lead his nation back to greatness, his character is somewhat troubling to critics. He is the one who demands Alarbus' sacrifice at the beginning of the play and who describes in grim detail the dismemberment of Tamora's first-born son by the Andronici. There is no marked change in his appetite for gruesome revenge when he devises the penalties for Aaron and Tamora at the end of the play. In fact, these do not differ greatly from the types of punishments that Aaron may have concocted for his enemies.

  26. James L. Calderwood, Shakespeare and the Denial of Death (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987) 199. Hereafter cited in the text.

  27. Eliot Tokson, The Popular Image of the Black Man is English Drama, 1550-1688 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982) 43.

  28. Joyce Green McDonald, “‘The Force of the Imagination’: The Subject of Blackness in Shakespeare, Jonson, and Ravenscroft,” Renaissance Papers, ed. George Walton Williams and Barbara J. Bain (Raleigh: Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1991) 64.

Kim F. Hall (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Marriages of State: The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra,” in Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England, Cornell University Press, 1995, pp. 141-60.

[In the excerpt below, Hall evaluates the racial and sexual threat to imperial culture posed by Caliban and Cleopatra in The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra, respectively.]

Colonialist readings of The Tempest have shown the text to be a fertile ground for exploring issues of race, cultural contest, and authority in English encounters in the “new world.”1 They have been less attentive to roles of women in colonial structures. The threat of interracial desire, although only one element in the myriad contests over social control in the play, is key to the establishment of an ideal of patriarchal authority. Perhaps because of his indeterminacy (to which I shall return later), Caliban has been read alternatively as black African, Afro-Caribbean, and Native American; however, in all these permutations, he embodies and resists ideologies of dark and light even as he is continually read as dark other.2 Ania Loomba proposes that “explicitly social-Darwinist, racist and imperialist productions indicated Caliban's political colour as clearly black” (143). The text itself locates Caliban on one side of a binarism in Prospero's final pronouncement on Caliban, “this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275-76), and in clearly marking him as a slave who is associated with darkness and dirt: “thou earth” (1.2.314; Vaughan and Vaughan 15).3 Caliban functions as a “thing of darkness” against which a European social order is tested and proved. Conversely, Miranda is the emblem of purity and integrity whose person is the grounds of this struggle: the contest for access to her reveals a concern over the purity of the aristocratic female body that symbolically assures the integrity of aristocratic bloodlines (“fair issue” [4.1.24]) and an orderly disposition of property (Loomba 83). In addition to the connection between Caliban and Miranda, the play features a series of attempted joinings or unions that momentarily disrupt categories of race, class, and gender. These unions generally draw attention to the increased fluidity of these categories in new world enterprise and particularly question the future of dynastic alliance and succession in an Atlantic economy.

In the first scene Prospero charges Caliban with the attempted rape of Miranda: “I have used thee—/ Filth as thou art—with humane care, and lodged thee / In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate / The honour of my child” (1.2.345-48). While Caliban's response indicates that he did indeed make advances to Miranda, modern minds conditioned by American racism are compelled to disrupt Prospero's fostering of Ferdinand's “seduction” in place of Caliban's “rape,” for, as Susan Griffin reminds us, the rape threat is the prime image formed by the racist imagination:

At the heart of the racist imagination we discover a pornographic fantasy: the specter of miscegenation. The image of a dark man raping a fair woman embodies all that the racist fears. The fantasy preoccupies his mind. A rational argument exists which argues that the racist simply uses pornographic images to manipulate the mind. But these images seem to belong to the racist. They are predictable in a way that suggests a more intrinsic part in the genesis of this ideology. (298)

Although it may seem anachronistic to impose such a race/sex dialectic on an early text, and possibly offensive to seem to “explain” Caliban's behavior, it is nonetheless true that interracial sex does become an issue in the Virginia colonies not twenty years after the first performance of The Tempest. In the first Virginia law case (Re: Davis 1630) involving race, a white, Hugh Davis, was publicly whipped for fornication with a black woman (Giddings 35-36).

Completely authorized by the play, Prospero's hostility toward Caliban is linked to his obsessive attempts to control his environment and his daughter's sexuality. Caliban's response, “O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done! / Thou didst prevent me—I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans” (1.1.348-50), strikes at the heart of European fears of the putative desire of the native other for European women and thus functions to license Prospero's anxiety (Loomba 149). Caliban's threat “to people the isle” with his offspring clearly suggests that he would control the island by creating a new “mixed” race and rebuts Prospero on his own terms. Territorial claims are backed here by a need for patriarchal control over women.4

Miranda's response to Caliban is equally telling: the language lessons (which she implies brought about the attempted violation), rather than fostering communication, reveal an epistemic “difference” that serves only to heighten her sense of racial difference and her estrangement from Caliban:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known. But thy vile race—
Though thou didst learn—had that in’t which good natures
Could not abide to be with …


Miranda's tirade against Caliban's alien “ingratitude” does seem out of character for the dutiful daughter she is in the rest of the play.5 Her claim that Caliban does not “know thine own meaning” replicates the play's central ethos, which cannot accept that his “gabbling” has value: just as Prospero's power is located in his book, “true” meaning (and power) lies in European, aristocratic language. Like many colonial travelers who denigrate the language of other cultures when confronted with meanings they do not accept, Miranda reads Caliban's native tongue as a nonlanguage and refuses to accept his use of her discourse on the grounds that it is corrupted with “uncivil” meanings. Her lessons, rather than reforming and “civilizing” him, only let him express his “savage” impulses in terms she cannot help but understand. He controls the language rather than be controlled by it. Caliban's “sin,” as it were, is both linguistic and sexual; in saying, “My profit on’t / Is I know how to curse,” he subverts the language just as he is said to attempt to corrupt Miranda.

Caliban's rejected sexual advances signal his position in the web of economics, hegemonic control, and linguistic exclusion that is common to discourses of race. In arguing that race becomes the central trope for forming differences between “cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific belief systems which—more often than not—also have fundamentally opposed economic interests” (5), Henry Louis Gates, Jr., also suggests that “literacy … is the emblem that links racial alienation and economic alienation” (6). Caliban's “difference” is produced out of just such a combination of linguistic exclusion and economic competition: his reply (“my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse”) articulates both economic and linguistic / racial alienation. Although writing is not directly an issue, access to a language of power is; curses (or spells), while seemingly powerful weapons for Sycorax, have no efficacy for Caliban. In this new linguistic economy, powerful curses and spells are located in Prospero's book. This triangulated linguistic community, with Prospero at the apex, serves to enforce both a racial hierarchy and patriarchal authority. Miranda, while teaching Caliban, performs the proper role of the woman within culture: she teaches a “mother language” to Caliban that is supposed to replace his original mother's tongue. However, neither Miranda's nor Caliban's relationship to language is powerful. Miranda's own mastery of language is still secondary to Prospero's: it is represented as purely oral, and she is frequently conjoined to silence in the beginning of the play. Juliet Fleming astutely notes that the vernacular and the oral are often associated with the feminine; more important, she contends that such mediated relationships to standardized languages are typical: “But while women (and foreigners) may be permitted to lend their assent to the new authoritative functions of English, they are not expected to use it authoritatively themselves; indeed the adequately ‘ruled’ English turns out to be the exclusive possession of men” (299).

So, too, the enforcing of a subject people's “assent” to a ruler's language is a key tool of colonial power. Caliban, typically, has been taught language as a tool of his own subordination; it is so tied into his labor as servant and guide that its use merely “profits” Prospero. We can see a similar ethos of language and national/ethnic competition in Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland, which is concerned in many ways with the legal, cultural, and economic ramifications of the union of cultures under imperialism. One of the fears that erupts from the discussion of the dubious lineage of Spaniards (seen as a mixed-race people) is the problematic purity of the Englishmen living in Ireland.6 Miscegenation (which, like blackness in George Best, is dubbed an “infection” by Spenser) and assimilation show their first effect in language:

Irenius: … and first I have to find fault with the abuse of language, that is, for the speaking of Irish amongst the English, which, as it is unnatural that any people should love another's language more than their own, so is it very inconvenient and the cause of many other evils. Eudoxus: It seemeth strange to me that the English should take more delight to speak that language than their own, whereas they should (me thinks) rather take scorne to acquaint their tounges thereto, for it hath been ever the use of the conquerer to despise the language of the conquered, and to force him by all means to learn his. So did the Romans always use, insomuch that there is almost no nation in the world but is sprinkled with their language. (67)

The discussion here shows a crucial connection between inscriptions of racial difference and colonial control. Cultural and political differences between the English, the Scottish, and the Irish are distilled to problematic linguistic differences, the overcoming and assimilation of which is the first step in an imperialist project.7 Irenius replies to Eudoxus's concerns that so few can be influenced linguistically by linking language acquisition to social formations, particularly to domestic practices:

I suppose that the chief cause of bringing in the Irish language, amongst them, was specially their fostering, and marrying with the Irishe, which are two most dangerous infections, for first the childe that sucketh the milke of the nurse must of necessity learn his first speech of her, the which being the first that is enured to his tongue is ever after most pleasing unto him, insomuch as though he afterwards be taught English, yet the smack of the first will always abide with him, and not only of the speech, but of the manners and conditions, … The next is the marrying with the Irish, which how dangerous a thing it is in all commonwealths, appeareth to every simplest sense, and though some great ones have used such matches with their vassals, … yet the example is so perilous as it is not to be adventured … (67, 68).

In this section of the View, fears of interracial alliance are very explicitly linked to fears of assimilation of the ruler by the ruled. This particular passage presents English fears of alternative social structures, such as Irish fosterage, and presents women as a chief danger. In some ways, fosterage is an even more powerful way of forming alliances between groups than marriage. Patricia Fumerton says of the Irish practice: “So strong was the bonding of fosterage that it cemented ties not only between the child and its foster parents but also between the foster parents and the natural parents” (46). This forming of bonds, which is not significantly different from Elizabethan practices of child exchange, is here a threat both because of the “unhealthy” mixture of Irish and English, and because of the ever-present danger of English assimilation. Women in this scenario become dangerous carriers of the infection of foreign difference, a danger so perilous that intermarriage needs to be avoided at all costs.

The connection between language and profit in Caliban's reply reverberates throughout The Tempest. The Europeans see Caliban as the conduit to the various means of new world wealth talked of in traveler's tales. Prospero makes Caliban a slave after he shows his knowledge of “every fertile inch o’ th’ island,” taking the profit of both the island and Caliban's labor and leaving him with only the dubious gain of language (“my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse”). Trinculo and Stephano immediately see the economic potential in Caliban. At first sight, Trinculo imagines putting Caliban on display: “Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday-fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man—any strange beast there makes a man” (2.2.27-30). Trinculo's enterprise again demonstrates the ambiguous allure of economic involvement. In gaining wealth from possession of the native, the European is rhetorically made one with the other, just as the hunger for novelty allows a “monster” to “make a man.” In Trinculo's formulation, he is created (made) by the native even as he makes him an object of exchange: “There would this monster make a man.” Colonialism and class interact when Trinculo (who, unlike Ferdinand, is not “the best of them that speak this speech” [1.1.430]) unwittingly creates the very entanglement that imperialism dreads: “Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian” (2.2.30-32).

This entanglement is itself ironically staged in the image of Trinculo and Caliban under the gabardine. Stephano associates the sight with foreign strangeness, crying, “Do you put tricks upon's with savages and men of Ind? Ha?” (2.2.56-57). Like Trinculo he instantly thinks of profit as well as of the monstrous mixture of Englishman and native: “This is some monster of the isle with four legs, who hath got, as I take it, an ague. Where the devil should he learn our language? I will give him some relief, if it be but for that. If I can recover him, and keep him tame, and get to Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat's-leather” (2.2.63-68). Significantly, Caliban's oddity or monstrosity is due in part to his ability to speak a master language, an ability that (at least in Trinculo's formulation) rewards him: “I will give him some relief.” Trinculo sees yet another profit in Caliban, perhaps buying favor from an emperor in exchange for this new world oddity. The comic entanglement of the lower-class European and the native is reminiscent of colonial propaganda, which locates a dangerous blurring of the line between the civilized and the barbaric in the lower classes and which uses the threatening economic need of the lower classes as the impetus for colonial expansion.8 Indeed, this coalition threatens Prospero's imperial project as much as the plot itself threatens his life. Prospero's much-noted hasty exit would then be read as a reaction to a class threat to aristocratic power. It also gestures toward an anxiety about class mobility enabled by colonial enterprise, an issue to which I will return at the end of this [essay].

Despite such class concerns, the proper disposition of both gender and race remains the central anxiety. Ferdinand's appearance on stage immediately after Prospero's dismissal of Caliban highlights interesting parallels between the noble European and the foreign “savage.” Like Caliban, Ferdinand requires instruction from Miranda: “Vouchsafe my prayer / May know if you remain upon this island, / And that you will some good instruction give / How I may bear me here” (1.2.423-26). However, unlike Caliban, Ferdinand is “culturally sound” as well as of noble birth. His first thought upon seeing Miranda is that she “speaks his language”: “My language! Heavens! / I am the best of them that speak this speech, / Were I but where ’tis spoken” (1.2.429-31). His characterization of his status as an epistemic connection rather than one of consanguinity signals an instant bond with Miranda. Linguistic compatibility, seen in other Shakespearean couples such as Romeo and Juliet and Beatrice and Benedick as a mere sign of sexual compatibility, takes on racial overtones in that racial and cultural difference are tied to rhetorical skill. The emphasis on linguistic prowess serves in some ways to efface crucial similarities between Ferdinand and Caliban. Prospero is, with good reason, equally concerned with regulating Miranda's courtship with Ferdinand, although his reaction to that courtship is qualitatively different from his reaction to Caliban. As David Sundelson points out, Ferdinand's reassuring reply to Prospero suggests both hidden rape fantasies and the possibility of abandonment (48), revealing a basic sexuality—common to both men—that must be contained by the father. These similarities in some ways suggest that the “real” difference between Caliban and Ferdinand is racial, not moral or sexual.

The pressures of imperialism insist on the control and regulation of female sexuality, particularly when concerns over paternity are complicated by the problems of racial and cultural purity. Prospero's manipulation of Ferdinand rewards him insofar as it creates a marriage of state that forms the basis for a new empire as well as a romantic attachment. Act 2 opens with a discussion of the marriage of Claribel, daughter of the king of Naples, in which Shakespeare provides an alternative glance at the way in which the traditional political marriage is endangered by European contact with less desirable others. The king of Naples arranges a political marriage between Claribel and the king of Tunis, a move he consequently regrets, because it has indirectly separated him from a daughter and a son. Once on the island, Alonso is roundly castigated by Sebastian for abusing his authority over his “fair daughter” (2.1.70) because he chose to “lose her to an African” (2.1.123):

You were kneeled to and importuned otherwise
By all of us, and the fair soul herself
Weighed between loathness and obedience at
Which end o’ th’ beam should bow. We have lost your son,
I fear, for ever. Milan and Naples have
More widows in them of this business' making
Than we bring men to comfort them.
The fault's your own.


Sebastian's criticism, like Alonso's regret (Would I had never / Married my daughter there, for coming thence / My son is lost [2.1.105-7]), directly attributes Ferdinand's loss—and the loss of the royal bloodline—to the marriage. All sorts of privation are attributed to the wedding (in contrast to the bounty promised in Miranda's wedding masque): in Sebastian's condemnation, European families are ruptured and bloodlines broken because of this marriage. Prospero prospers not only because of his successful manipulation of the Ferdinand-Miranda alliance but also because of Alonso's disastrous decision to open up the sex/gender system to an African king. In refusing to open the sex/gender system to non-European outsiders, Prospero demonstrates his ability to preserve the integrity of the “fair” aristocratic body and, consequently, the state. Not only does he regain his kingdom, he becomes the father to a new dynasty.

The attention to paternal authority only throws into relief the very visible absence of mothers in the play. Typically, Prospero gives the maternal history of both Miranda and Caliban. Miranda's mother is mentioned in order to confirm the purity and insularity of Prospero's own bloodline:

Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan, and
A prince of power—
Sir, are you not my father?
Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter; and thy father
Was Duke of Milan, and his only heir
And princess no worse issued.


Ironically, her presence is evoked by Miranda's unwitting, yet witty, denial of her father's royal power. Prospero's reply (“She said thou wast my daughter”) reveals an anxiety over inheritance and the woman's role in reproduction, a factor that had a particularly strong resonance for James, whose own claim to England's throne was particularly vexed because, as Stephen Orgel notes, “His legitimacy, in both senses [as designated ruler and son], thus derived from two mothers, the chaste Elizabeth and the sensual Mary” (“Prospero's Wife” 59). Caliban counters Prospero's attacks with an equally strong claim to an “empire” through his African mother's bloodline:

This island's mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak'st from me. When thou cam'st first
Thou strok'st me and made much of me; wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile—
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king, and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’th’ island.


It is in response to Caliban's claim of property rights that Prospero charges Caliban with rape, a rhetorical move that reinforces Valerie Smith's point that “instances of interracial rape constitute sites of struggle between black and white men that allow privileged white men to exercise their property rights over the bodies of white women” (158). Although Smith is referring here specifically to the view of white women as property, historically claims of rape have worked to mystify property interests.

Caliban poses the ultimate threat to such a quest for social and political integrity. Not only is he made into a sexual threat against an aristocratic body, his own unfixed and ambiguous origins make him an embodiment of the miscegenative threat. Caliban himself is that site of anxiety provoked by the expansion of England. Peter Hulme persuasively suggests that the play is situated within a fundamental dualism, represented both geographically in the island and physically in Caliban:

The island is the meeting place of the play's topographical dualism, Mediterranean and Atlantic, ground of the mutually incompatible reference systems whose co-presence serves to frustrate any attempt to locate the island on a map. Caliban is similarly the ground of these two discourses. As “wild man” or “wodehouse”, with an African mother whose pedigree leads back to the Odyssey, he is distinctly Mediterranean. And yet, at the same time, he is, as his name suggests, a “cannibal” as that figure had taken shape on colonial discourse: ugly, devilish, ignorant, gullible and treacherous—according to the Europeans' descriptions of him. (108)

As I argue [elsewhere], Africa is a foundational presence in new world discourses. Hulme's formulation provides a necessary corrective to many colonialist readings that look only to new world materials as influential on the play. Alden and Virginia Vaughan note the surprisingly infrequent attempts to link The Tempest to discourses of Africa (51). Although it is not my intent here to embark on that project, thinking along Hulme's lines opens up the possibility for Caliban to occupy multiple sites of difference and might counter some of the unease that critics have felt with the imprecision with which one can identify the play as “colonialist.” Meredith Skura, for example, bases a large part of her critique of what she calls “revisionist” readings of the play on a survey of new world materials and a conclusion that there was no stable colonialist discourse that Shakespeare could be said to draw on.9 As a useful counter to Skura's argument, it would be helpful to combine Hulme's insight with Mary Louise Pratt's concept of the “contact zone,” which is a colonial space “in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable contact” (6). The island is a space of competing and conflicting discourses that are about the contact itself. There are any number of these “contact zones” in Renaissance travel literature, and it might be fruitful to think of those in relation to the play. For example, one might think about the infamous example of Sir Francis Drake, whose crew, on his third circum-navigation, impregnated a black woman named Maria and abandoned her on an island along with two black men.

Caliban embodies the contradiction and contest characteristic of border spaces, and in that position he contests Prospero's imperial visions. Just as Caliban verbally refuses Prospero's attempts to construct a seamless colonial narrative and critical attempts to construct a unified play of forgiveness and restoration, his “difference” itself is unsettled; it defies categories and is therefore, for the Europeans and contemporary critics, “unsettling.” Even the seeming resolution seems to open up the issues of Caliban's birthright and inheritance once more:

This misshapen knave,
His mother was a witch, and one so strong
That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs,
And deal in her command without her power.
These three have robbed me, and this demi-devil—
For he’s a bastard one—had plotted with them
To take my life. Two of these fellows you
Must know and own; this thing of darkness I
Acknowledge mine.


The terms originally used to control and disinherit Caliban (“misshapen knave,” “bastard,” “demi-devil”) are here reproduced along with a discourse of theft and illegitimacy, which are used to license Prospero's moves to create a political dynasty. Both moves publicly establish Prospero's ownership in a proprietorial sense, suggesting that any “acknowledgment” or bond with a dark other can be safely made only within a context of ownership and control.

The play opens up another perspective on interracial union through the perplexing “widow Dido” jesting that precedes the breast-beating over Claribel's marriage. It is now a commonplace that the Aeneid is a crucial subtext for issues of dynastic politics and royal authority in The Tempest (Orgel, Tempest 39). The story of Aeneas, the founder of imperial Rome, and Dido, the African queen, provides yet another cautionary tale of the threat of female sexuality to colonial expansion when Dido's passion is read as diverting Aeneas from the task of empire. The bantering over Dido's status as widow represents conflicting Renaissance readings of the Dido story (Orgel, Tempest 42), which speak to the issue of proper marriage. Gonzalo's insistence on Dido as widow authorizes her union as a marriage (since one must be a wife to be a widow) and thereby legitimizes the foreign female's part in the creation of empire. In contrast, Antonio's jesting reduces Dido's importance: she becomes a mere dalliance on Aeneas's part and no significant threat to Aeneas's imperial project.

Gonzalo, in changing the subject from the king's doomed children, turns to an imaginative politics that paradoxically creates a “new” commonwealth with existing political structures. The proximity of the description of his “socialist” state to the issues of dynastic succession suggestively links changes in the European social order to the threat of miscegenation. Issues of racial difference are consequently collapsed into problems of economics, politics, class, and gender. Like Shakespeare's Cleopatra, Gonzalo's Dido competes for title of widow and a legitimate place in the imperial text and provokes the possibility of alternative dynastic structures that are not purely European.

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is the play that perhaps is most closely concerned with the ways an African queen threatens empire. Cleopatra's darkness makes her the embodiment of an absolute correspondence between fears of racial and gender difference and the threat they pose to imperialism. As Ania Loomba states, “Dominant notions about female identity, gender relations and imperial power are unsettled through the disorderly non-European woman” (125). In his tirade on Antony's “dotage” in the opening scene, Philo comments on both Cleopatra's sexuality and her darkness, claiming that Antony's eyes “now bend, now turn / The office and devotion of their view / Upon a tawny front” (1.1.4-6) and calling him “the fan / To cool a gipsy's lust” (1.1.9-10).10 His language, typical of orientalist discourse, makes it clear that Shakespeare is at pains to have us see a black Cleopatra. For Shakespeare, as Leonard Tennenhouse notes, “Cleopatra is Egypt. As such, however, she embodies everything that is not English according to the nationalism which developed under Elizabeth as well as to the British nationalism later fostered by James” (144).

Although there seems to be no male tradition in England of a swarthy Cleopatra, Samuel Daniel's Cleopatra (1594) may provide some clues to the darkness of Shakespeare's. While Cleopatra is never described as physically dark in The Tragedie of Cleopatra, her deeds are “black”; in many ways, she is an outsider even within her own country. The chorus's lament suggests that her unruly behavior is a danger to her own community and estranges her from the rest of Egypt:

And likewise [she] makes us pay
For her disordered lust,
Th’ int’rest of our blood:
Or live a servile pray,
Under a hand unjust,
.....This have her riot wonne,
And thus shee hath her state, her selfe and us undunne.


In Daniel's version, Cleopatra is very much the unruly female whose sexuality destroys not only Antony but Egypt as well. Although it is apparent in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra that Cleopatra has lost Egypt to the Romans, there is no Egyptian censure for this, whereas in Daniel's Cleopatra her servants, rather than Antony's, turn traitor and repent. One reason for Cleopatra's lack of darkness may be that The Tragedie of Cleopatra begins after Antony's suicide, which tends to minimize the ominous specter of mixed-race children, a vision that would have been incompatible with the maternal role Daniel envisions for her.

… [There] seems to be an emerging female tradition of a dark Cleopatra. One most obvious reason for this phenomenon is that female writers in various ways identify with the Roman Octavia, an identification that makes Cleopatra a different threat than is found in the male tradition. In her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, Aemilia Lanyer makes Cleopatra black, but only in relation to the fair Octavia:

Yea though thou wert as rich, as wise, as rare,
As any Pen could write, or Wit devise;
Yet with this Lady canst thou not compare,
Whose inward virtues all thy worth denies:
Yet thou a blacke Egyptian do'st appeare;
Thou false, shee true; and to her Love more deere.


In describing Cleopatra, “as rich, as wise, as rare, / As any Pen could write,” Lanyer zeroes in on the crucial matter of Cleopatra as text. Her literary appropriation is much like colonial appropriation in that she is the rich matter to be tamed and controlled for imperial growth. However, as Shakespeare's Octavius discovers, Cleopatra is a highly resistant text in her insistance on fashioning her own role in the empire. This resistance is perhaps due to her absolute identification with Egypt. Although her blackness and difference appear in proportion to her Dido-like threat to empire, the strong correlation between Cleopatra's sexual difference and her cultural difference makes it difficult to manipulate one against the other.

Egypt itself is a very malleable sign. Indeed, as with contemporary Eurocentric geography, many writers of the Renaissance did not locate Egypt on the African continent. Often in geographical and political discourses, Egypt is spoken of as though it is a separate continent, unconnected with Africa. Here Egypt is a focal point of East-West confrontation, claimed as African or “Asiatic” simultaneously, existing as a constantly claimed but ultimately unfixed signifier. Throughout Leo Africanus's Geographical Historie, for example, Egypt is alternately both an early cradle of Christianity and a bastion of “Mahommetism.” With its mixture of religions and races, Egypt is itself like the threatening “infinite variety” attributed to Cleopatra. This absolute identification of Cleopatra with Egypt is most apparent in the association with the Nile. Her speech to Charmian is a case in point:

“Where's my serpent of old Nile?”
(For so he calls me). Now I feed myself
With most delicious poison. Think on me,
That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black,
And wrinkled deep in time?


Here, we see three of the elements associated with the Nile: serpents, poison/pollution, and blackness. It has been suggested by many editors of the play that this link with the Nile is meant to suggest Cleopatra's fecundity and fertility; travel writings, however, offer a different, more negative understanding of the significance of the Nile. As I noted [elsewhere], travelers' tales of Africa's rivers, which regularly overflow their boundaries, had become a source of fascination for the English, and the geographical fact of inundation is regularly conflated with the sense of darker-skinned Africans as people who resist boundaries and rule. In his description of the Nile, Leo Africanus demonstrates how depictions of the Nile become inextricably connected with assessments of Egypt's political order: “Creatures therein contained are exceeding strange, as namely sea-horses, sea-oxen, crocodiles, and other such monstrous and cruel beasts, (as we will afterward declare) which were not so hurtfull either in the ancient times of the Egyptians or of the Romaines, as they are at this present: but they became more dangerous ever since the Mahumetans were lords of Egypt” (335). The Nile and its inhabitants become more dangerous as they move farther from the “civilized” world. Depictions of the Nile invariably involve unspoken comparisons with English rivers, and the inundations conjure up the specter of Western impotence and stagnation in the face of Egypt's “fat prosperity” (Daniel, L3v).11

Similarly, the Nile runs throughout Antony and Cleopatra as a sign of overwhelming sexuality and social disorder and associates Cleopatra with the kind of overflow and excess characteristic of the female grotesque. Antony, like the Renaissance traveler, regales the drunken triumvirate with tales of Egypt and the “flow o’ th’ Nile” (2.7.17), while Enobarbus tells the attendants tales of Cleopatra's “infinite variety.” The play opens with an evocation of the flooding of the Nile as Philo proclaims, “This dotage of our general's / O’erflows the measure” (1.1.1-2). Antony's and Cleopatra's assertions “Melt Egypt in Nile. … Let Rome in Tiber melt” (1.1.33) also link this powerful image of inundation with the struggles of empire. The dark/light binarism, here acted out as a division of Egypt and Rome, is continually on the verge of dissolution. More than a wishing-away of worldly cares or a sign of Egyptian dispersal of symbols of order and measurement, the metaphors of excess bespeak an anxiety striking directly at the heart of Europe's primal fear: loss of identity in measureless expansion. Antony's absorption with Cleopatra is only the romantically reversed reading of Rome's political absorption. Although it is true that “the luxury and feasting of the Egyptian court image a natural plenty which is curbed by no Roman temperance,” this natural plenitude, so seductive to a modern audience, is precisely what would have been threatening to a Europe struggling to control its own countrymen loosed into a foreign world of plenty (Kermode 1345).

This combination of unlicensed sensuality and economic exchange is perhaps best symbolized by Antony's gift of an “orient pearl” (1.5.41):

“Say the firm Roman to great Egypt sends
This treasure of an oyster; at whose foot,
To mend the petty present, I will piece
Her opulent throne with kingdoms. All the East,
Say thou, shall call her mistress.”


Like Emilia's admonition of husbands that “pour our treasures into foreign laps” (Othello 4.3.88), Alexas's message from Antony evokes both male submission and sensuality: Antony pictures himself placing kingdoms at the foot of Egypt's throne (rather than Rome's) and delivering the treasures of the Orient to Cleopatra. The image of his message is suggestive of the imperial image of Elizabeth in the Ditchley portrait, in which she literally has kingdoms at her foot.12 Unlike Elizabeth's virgin pearl, however, this “treasure of an oyster” continues the conflation of sexual and material exchange: oysters were long thought to be an aphrodisiac.13 Similarly, Cleopatra's wealth and the sexual threat represented by her children underlie her contest with Octavius when she counters his perhaps false offer of protection for her children with an inaccurate accounting of her “money, plate, and jewels” (5.2.138). The fertility associated with Cleopatra is a threat to the Roman world; in this scene her illegitimate children become the battleground on which she struggles to maintain her stake in the empire.

Antony's affair with Cleopatra is perhaps not as damaging as his “going native” and falling into the plenitude and excess of Egypt. Cleopatra's court is a place of sexual misrule, and in Rome Antony is continually censured for sexual freedom, which is taken for granted in Egypt. In Octavius's eyes, Antony is humbled and effeminized; he uses an image of cross-dressing to denigrate the relationship further: he “is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolomy / More womanly than he” (1.4.5-7). The descriptions of the court feature all sorts of transgressive behavior, which includes neglecting class as well as racial and sexual boundaries:

                                                                                                                                                                                                        Let’s grant it is not
Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolomy,
To give a kingdom for mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smells of sweat.


In descriptions of Antony's “dereliction of duty” (some of which sound not very much different from Harrington's scenes of license in James's court), we see that the Romans blame Antony not so much for the affair as for the behavior it provokes: “Mark Antony / In Egypt sits at dinner, and will make / No wars without-doors” (2.1.11-13).

The closing scenes of Antony and Cleopatra turn upon the manipulation of Cleopatra as an imperial text. Like “widow Dido” of The Tempest, she is subject to variant readings. Octavius wants finally to tame and display the previously unruly matter of Cleopatra:

Know, sir, that I
Will not wait pinion’d at your master's court,
Nor once be chastis’d with the sober eye
Of dull Octavia. Shall they hoist me up,
And show me to the shouting varlotry
Of censuring Rome?


As her speech shows, Cleopatra proves well aware of Roman efforts to fix her position in the imperial picture. Octavius attempts to read her as the dangerous female subject, the strumpet who brought down Rome by causing Antony's downfall:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad's out a’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels: Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.


Cleopatra poses an alternative reading of her part in the imperial text. Refusing to be seen as a fatal dalliance, subject to conflicting interpretations, she inscribes herself as a wife. As in The Tempest, the issue of lawful marriage with the other is crucial. In chastizing Cleopatra, Antony bemoans the time diverted from creating legitimate children:

Have I left my pillow unpress’d in Rome,
Forborne the getting of a lawful race,
And by a gem of women, to be abus’d
By one that looks on feeders?


Shakespeare here has Antony erroneously evoke the idea of a “lost” pure bloodline. Antony did produce children with Octavia, a fact obscured in Shakespeare's text, which is a crucial indication of character in North's translation of Plutarch and, later, for Dryden's in All for Love.

Although, as Stanley Cavell notes, Antony deliberately distances himself from any possibility of marriage to Cleopatra (22-24), he dies thinking of himself as a bridegroom: “My queen and Eros / Have by their brave instruction got upon me / A nobleness in record; but I will be / A bridegroom in my death, and run into’t / As to a lover's bed” (4.14.97-101). Cleopatra, in turn, stages her death as an imperial marriage: “Husband, I come! / Now to that name my courage prove my title! … Peace, peace! / Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?” (5.2.287-307). Her insistence on being seen as a legitimate wife threatens the closure of the imperial text. Reading these “other” mistresses as wives forces the acceptance of their mixed offspring and directly negates the Roman emphasis on noble deeds and pure bloodlines.

Egypt and Caliban's island are both liminal spaces in which the separations of dark and light, self and other, are momentarily broken down, and the anxieties over that collapse are displayed and explored. Both Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest grapple with difficulties of maintaining cultural integrity and endogamous unions within imperial/colonial economies of desire. In doing so, the texts offer early hints at what will later become entrenched racial stereotypes. Rome is England's imagined forefather in empire, and Antony and Cleopatra provides an object lesson in imperial history; Antony becomes a warning against the dangers of overinvolvement with the reputed sexual excess of black women. The Tempest, looking forward to future colonization, offers the greater threat of the black man as rapist. Both images work less to control actual black sexuality than to shape an image of a white, male ruling class as rational, restrained, and powerful in the face of dangerous excess and unregulated sexuality. However, just as in the travel narrative, such warnings against the other have embedded in them a fascination with the other. Difference always escapes the desire for control. The model imperial powers, Octavius and Prospero, both fail in their attempts to control and order foreign others for their own use. Octavius is ultimately not able to restrain and display Cleopatra, and Prospero is forced to acknowledge his connection to a “thing of darkness.”


  1. For examples of what “new historicism” and cultural materialism have made of the colonial themes in this play, see Paul Brown, “‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism”; Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England; Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. For discussions of postcolonial issues see especially Thomas Cartelli, “Prospero in Africa: The Tempest as Colonial Text and Pre-Text”; Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, 142-58; and Rob Nixon, “Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest.

  2. Alden T. and Virginia Mason Vaughan's Shakespeare's Caliban offers a wide-ranging reception history of the play.

  3. A. and V. Vaughan also explore the intriguing possibility that the name Caliban derives from the Romany word Cauliban, which meant “‘black’ or things associated with blackness” (33-34). Line references to The Tempest are to the Oxford edition, ed. Stephen Orgel.

  4. Stephen Orgel argues that the competing claims of Caliban and Prospero for the island represent the available ways of understanding royal authority under James I's reign (“Prospero's Wife” 58).

  5. For a discussion of the critical commentary on these lines and the theater's attempts to resolve them, see Stephen Orgel's introduction to the Oxford edition of The Tempest. I will add that violent rejections of the other's sexual advances only serve, rather than disrupt, the interests of patriarchy. Although this may be a case of the “radically discontinuous” speech attributed to women (Belsey, Subject of Tragedy 160), it also true that women bear the responsibility of policing the borders of the state and rejecting differences that threaten patriarchal structures and are licensed to speak out in that capacity.

  6. Spenser outlines one of the sources of this sense of Spain's mixed heritage when he suggests that Spain's current riches are the inheritance of a long history of invasion, particularly by Africans: “For the Spaniard that now is, is come from as rude and savage nations as they, there being as it may be gathered by course of ages and view of their own history (though they therein labour, much to ennoble themselves) scarce any drop of the old Spanish blood left in them: … And yet after all those the Moors and barbarians breaking over out of Africa, did finally possess all Spain, or the most part thereof, and tread down under their foul heathenish feet, whatever little they found there yet standing; the which though afterwards they were beaten out by Ferdinand of Aragon and Elizabeth his wife, yet they were not so cleansed, but that through the marriages which they had made, and mixture with the people of the land during their long continuance there, they had left no pure drop of Spanish blood; no, nor of Roman nor Scythian; so that of all nations under heaven I suppose the Spaniard is the most mingled, most uncertain and most bastardly” (43-44).

  7. José Piedra analyzes the first grammar of a modern European language, Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática de la lengua castellana, as an arm of imperial rule: “Europe, Africa, and America became the grounds on which Spain planned to practice enslavement justified as a rhetorical brokerage of universal knowledge” (282). He further claims, “Nebrija provided the New World with the justification for a cohesive Hispanic Text; he unified ‘otherness’ under the grammatical self-righteousness of the colonial letter” (284).

  8. See Chapter 1, pp. 53-54.

  9. Skura's essay is itself quite fascinating in that it critiques attempts at historical specificity while at the same time insisting on ahistorical psychoanalytic paradigms (such as “man's timeless tendency to demonize ‘strangers’” [45]) that re-inscribe the universality of Shakespeare. Ironically, the very materials she uses would seem to question the “timeless tendency to demonize strangers”: although all colonial narratives are in some sense motivated fictions, the recurring trope of the friendly, welcoming native who suddenly turns hostile suggests that demonization is not the first response—unless one assumes that white Europeans are never strangers. So, too, Caliban's first response is not to demonize the “stranger” Prospero but to welcome him. Skura also claims that “Shakespeare was the first to show one of us mistreating a native, the first to represent a native from the inside, the first to allow a native to complain onstage, and the first to make the New World encounter problematic enough to generate the current attention to the play” (58). This peroration contains a set of highly problematic and offensive assumptions that reveal the difficulties of her critical approach. Her references to the “universality of racial prejudice” (56) and “general psychological needs” (69) are specifically linked to her assertion that Shakespeare was the first to show one of us mistreating a native. These assertions, like her insistence on the universality (yet uniqueness) of Shakespeare, rely on the notion of a unified and universal white subject—in other words, herself. Who is included in the italicized “us” that we are shown in the play? Any reader of the play? Any literary critic? Any teacher? Am I, a black feminist critic of Shakespeare part of the “us” that Skura imagines? Like those who accept Prospero's narratives as the “truth,” Skura assumes that all readers are potential Prosperos.

  10. Although “gypsy” is usually glossed as a shortened form of “Egyptian,” it typically carries connotations of darkness as well as associations with lechery and deceit. Sir Thomas Browne calls gypsies “Counterfeit Negroes” in the section “Of Gypsies” in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. See also Alden and Virginia Vaughan's discussion of gypsies in Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History, 33-36.

  11. Ania Loomba suggests that the association of Cleopatra with eating also locates her as a racial other: “The recurrent food imagery reinforces her primitive appeal: she makes men hungry, she does not cloy their appetite (II. ii. 240-42); she is Antony's ‘Egyptian dish’ (II. vi. 122), she is ‘salt Cleopatra’ (II. i. 21). She is the supreme actress, artifice herself, and simultaneously primitive and uncultivated” (78). Cultural critic bell hooks sees the desire for the primitive in modern capitalist culture as rooted in an ethos of consumption: “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other” (hooks, Black Looks 23).

  12. For discussions of this portrait see Roy Strong, Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 135-41. See also Andrew and Catherine Belsey, “Icons of Divinity: Portraits of Elizabeth I,” 15-17. Ania Loomba draws a more sustained connection between the ways in which Elizabeth I and Cleopatra “evoked specifically Renaissance fears of female government” (76).

  13. I thank Gwynne Kennedy, whose paper on the correspondence between Lady Mary Wroth and Lord Denny, “She ‘thincks she daunces in a net’: The Reception of Lady Mary Wroth's Urania,” addresses the use of the oyster in the exchange of poems between Wroth and Denny.

Works Cited

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Daniel, Samuel. Delia and Rosamond Augmented, Cleopara. London, 1594.

Fleming, Juliet. “Dictionary English and the Female Tongue.” In Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, 290-325. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Fumerton, Patricia. Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Literature and the Practice of Social Ornament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. New York: Penguin, 1990.

———. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes.” In “Race,” Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1-20. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Morrow, 1984.

Griffin, Susan. “The Sacrificial Lamb.” In Racism and Sexism: An Integrated Study, ed. Paula S. Rothenberg, 296-305. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Kermode, Frank, et al., eds. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Lanyer, Aemilia. The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judæorum. Ed. Susanne Wood. New York: Oxford, 1993.

Loomba, Ania. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero's Wife.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson et al., 50-64. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Skura, Meredith Anne. “Discourse and the Individual: The Case of Colonialism in The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 42-69.

Smith, Valerie. “Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the ‘Other.’” In Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl A. Wall, 38-57. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

———. “Split Affinities: The Case of Interracial Rape.” In Conflicts in Feminism, ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Sundelson, David. “So Rare a Wonder’d Father: Prospero's Tempest.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, 33-53. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Vaughan, Alden T., and Virginia Mason. Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Margo Hendricks (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “‘Obscured by Dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 37-60.

[In the following essay, Hendricks examines Shakespeare's “figurative evocation” of India in A Midsummer Night's Dream, probing “the play's complicity in the racialist ideologies being created by early modern England's participation in imperialism.”]

“There’s no such thing as ‘England’ any more … welcome to India brothers!”1

In July 1991 I was engaged as a textual advisor for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed by the Shakespeare Santa Cruz repertory company (hereafter SSC). In a camp rendering of Shakespeare's text, director Danny Scheie sought to illuminate what he viewed as the sexual politics of the text. Featuring a variety of pop-culture motifs (ranging from 1950s American teenage attire and behavior to Disney's Snow White), the production obstructed any possibility of seeing the play as merely a romantic idealization of courtly behavior (though it did reinforce the centrality of marriage as a solution to social discord). While segments of the production were noteworthy for their playful disruption of tradition (particularly in treating the young lovers), the production also exhibited disturbingly unexamined acceptance of some sexual and racial stereotypes in its treatment of Titania and Hippolyta. Knowing that a camp Titania and Hippolyta would prove crowd-pleasers, the director was untroubled by the implications for the construction of race and gender of casting a black male as Titania and costuming him in a pink tutu and pink wig, or presenting Hippolyta as a stereotypic Wagnerian Valkyrie (thick blond braids, horned helmet, spear, etc.).

The director made a more radical and problematic decision with the Indian boy. Whether the Indian boy appears onstage at all is generally of little consequence, since he has no lines and would function as little more than a stage prop, part of the spectacle of Oberon and Titania's first meeting in the play. The director of the SSC production, however, chose to have the Indian boy make an appearance.2 Normally this choice would scarcely merit a review note, let alone an entire essay. Yet, like the directorial decisions behind the representations and interpretations of Hippolyta, Oberon, Titania, and Theseus, the appearance and casting of the Indian boy bore ideological significance worth examining. First, the director, in a break with both textual and theatrical tradition, cast an adult male as the changeling: the “boy” was in his early twenties, six feet tall, tanned, and naked except for a gold lamé loincloth. Second, in both the costume designer's drawings and on the stage, the Indian boy was culturally and racially marked: a turban (complete with feather), “Turkish” slippers, and jewelled dagger. The Indian boy appeared on the Santa Cruz stage as a veritable Sinbad, a rich oriental “trifle” accessible to the gaze of predominantly white audiences for six weeks.

At the end of its run, this postmodern production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream might have gone the way of other small-repertory-company productions of Shakespeare's comedy: the “part of the Indian boy played by” an inscription on the actor's résumé; favorable or unfavorable reviews; and, after strike, the cast and crew moving on to other endeavors. But this history was not to be. The following year, while teaching a class on gender and theater, I was asked by students who knew that I had worked on the production to arrange a screening of the videotape. The students had heard that it was a lively, funny, and brilliant interpretation of Shakespeare's play. As I watched the videotape of SSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, I meditated on the image of the Indian boy: was anyone other than me troubled by the oriental fantasy created by the director's political production? Did any of my students comprehend the unmistakably racist denotations of the representation? More important, was this particular representation of the Indian boy a directorial whim, or was the director constrained by something in a centuries-old playtext which inhibited any other possible reading of the Indian boy?

The director's attempt to infiltrate Shakespeare's text and subvert the long history of its theatrical production, as well as his commitment to challenge audience expectations about casting, I would argue, worked to engender not a radical rewriting of Shakespeare's text but merely another supplemental history of it. For in the representation of the Indian boy (and, in a different way, the figure of Titania), directorial subversion was instrumental in reaffirming an aspect of orientalist ideology: like the odalisque who became a favorite topos of Impressionist painting, the Indian boy of SSC's production silently conjured the template of eroticism and exoticism adumbrated in the West's vision of India and the East.3

The SSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream sought to offer what Leah Marcus calls a “localized” Shakespeare: an attempt “to create an edge of defamiliarization about what has become too well known, engineer a set of encounters between disparate cultural situations in order to open up ways for audiences to rediscover the plays at the point ‘where remoteness and accessibility meet.’” That is, the production, in part novel and in part familiar, endeavored to reveal “the cultural otherness of what we thought we understood.”4 Yet, with contextualization, I want to offer an explanation as to why, in the SSC production, this “localizing” not only failed to “defamiliarize” but in fact colluded—and arguably could only collude—with an a priori racial ideology that imagines the Indian boy and what he signifies in early modern English culture.

The starting point for my reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a rudimentary query: what are we to make of the Indian boy? On the textual level the Indian boy is simply a plot device: he figures as the origin of the conflict between Oberon and Titania (a conflict that presumably begins in India). But why does he have to be Indian? Why not describe the boy as merely a changeling child? Or, if critical tradition is correct that all the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream are taken from English folklore, why not identify the changeling as the English boy? Obviously the dramatic structure and characterizations would not have been affected by such a change and, in fact, would have been made more definitively local. So once again it seems useful to ask: why does Shakespeare initially identify the child as “stol’n” from an “Indian king” and later expand on this identification with an elaborate narrative of the boy's maternal ethnic origins? Furthermore, what are we to make, culturally, of the fairies who fight for possession of him? Finally, what implications about race and early modern England's mercantilist and/or colonialist-imperialist ideology might we draw from Shakespeare's use of India?

Until recently explorations of early modern thinking about race meant recognizing early modern social discourse “to be about race … when it employs a category which [we are] able to identify as having a referent corresponding to that designated by [our] own understanding of the term ‘race.’”5 In other words, such works as Othello, Titus Andronicus, or The White Devil, with their inclusion of a “black” character as a pivotal figure in the dramatic narratives of white European societies, have been taken as definitive signposts of early modern representations of race and racist ideologies. But what if our inferences, our understandings, are inaccurate? What if, in attempting to sort out the significance of early modern English literature to a post-World War II global political economy, we have misread, or not read at all, some of the signs of racial thinking present in that literature? Is it possible that a too narrow definition misrepresents and engenders an under-reading of the complexity and ambiguity of the word race and of its social and cultural articulation in sixteenth-century England? To ask these and other critically imperative questions about the ideological implications of any Renaissance text is also to be concerned with how audiences (then and now) might construe the concept of race and its linguistic inflections.

In the whole of Shakespeare's dramatic canon the word race is employed only seventeen times, and generally it signifies genealogy. For example, in 2 Henry VI, Suffolk tells Warwick

Thy mother took into her blameful bed
Some stern untutored churl, and noble stock
Was graft with crab-tree slip—whose fruit thou art
And never of the Nevilles' noble race.


We find the same signification when the word is used in Richard III (“Live, and beget a happy race of kings” [5.3.157]), Antony and Cleopatra (“Have I my pillow left unpressed in Rome, / Forborne the getting of a lawful race” [3.13.107-8]), and Cymbeline (“a valiant race” [5.4.83]). There are only three instances when race seems to connote something different. The first occurs in Measure for Measure when Angelo remarks “And now I give my sensual race the rein” (2.4.161), where he is clearly referring to his personality. The second takes place in The Tempest when Miranda says of Caliban “But thy vile race … had that in’t which good natures / Could not abide to be with” (1.2.361-63), where race suggests type. And the third instance, somewhat ambiguous in its meaning, takes place in Macbeth, where Duncan's horses are called “the minions of their race. / Turned wild in nature” (2.4.15-16).7

In every usage there is a locus, an axis of determinism attendant upon a preconceived notion of fundamental distinctions, whether that locus is in a class-based concept of genealogy, in an essential nature, or in the ambiguity of ethnic typology. Race is envisioned as something fundamental, something immutable, knowable, and recognizable yet visible only when its boundaries are violated; thus race is also, paradoxically, mutable, illusory, and mysterious. Race is material (Duncan's horses) and immaterial (Angelo's nature). Race is language more than it is biology; yet without biology the language of race could not (and would not) exist.8 Race is transmitted yet is viewed as essence. Race is ideology; race is ontology. Race is all this and nothing: a shaping fantasy.

It is this “shaping fantasy” in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a vision of race, which I intend to trace in my reading of Shakespeare's playtext. To begin with, I want to argue that literally and figuratively the playtext denotes cultural and temporal spaces that I shall refer to as “borderlands,” spaces that are clearly marked for recognition. According to Gloria Anzaldúa, “Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”9 While the most obvious instances of this phenomenon in A Midsummer Night's Dream occur in the social interactions between humans and fairies, male and female, Athenian and Amazon, I believe a borderland also coalesces on an ideological level in the concept of race. This concept is neither wholly the older (and more feudal) idea based on class and lineage nor wholly the more modern idea based only on physical appearance (i.e., skin color, physiognomy). Rather, the idea of race in A Midsummer Night's Dream is an uneasy mixture—the miscegenation, if you will—of these two views. My argument is that the figurative evocation of Indian localizes Shakespeare's characterization of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream and marks the play's complicity in the racialist ideologies being created by early modern England's participation in imperialism. Moreover, it is my contention that this racialist ideology is not unique to Shakespeare's playtext but endemic to most textual representations of India contemporary with it.

As a way of situating this hypothesis, I begin with the literary tradition behind Shakespeare's use of Oberon and this character's link with India, in particular the medieval romance Huon of Bordeaux, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and Robert Greene's Scottish Historie of James the fourth. I then examine two sixteenth-century travel narratives about India. Both the medieval romance and the two travel narratives, I argue, ideologically and lexically imagine a geographic region that becomes such a commonplace that the mere mention of the word “India” is enough to conjure a particular image, one figured in terms of skin color, geography, sexuality, and religion, and which instantiates a cultural subtext in Shakespeare's portrayal of fairyland. The final sections of this essay explore the ideological significance of these images, Shakespeare's use of India, and the lexicon both presuppose. In ways similar to yet different from descriptions of the New World, early modern accounts of India are marked by an emerging taxonomy of gender and linguistic difference. It is not unusual for the writer of an English Renaissance narrative to digress from topographical, mercantile, or political description in order to address a culture's sexual practices and behavior, especially the actions of women. Furthermore, what is striking in such digressions is the intrusive presence of an emerging racial lexicon tied to physical appearance and hybridity. By drawing a link between this lexicon, travel narratives, and Shakespeare's Oberon/Titania/Indian boy/Bottom scenario, I want to highlight how dramatic invention intersects with lexical formulation in the reconceptualization of race. My argument, heuristically and philologically, endeavors to expand our understanding of the politics of race in early modern England. As Kim Hall suggests, modern concepts of “race are in large part the result of lingering notions of ‘difference’ that resided at the intersections of English travel and trade, plantation, empire, and science in the early modern period.”10


Steven Mullaney has argued that a “map in the modern sense of the term is a guide to the present: a graphic index to the location of things in space, a traveler's aid which makes the passage from here to there less difficult.”11A Midsummer Night's Dream might very well be considered a map of the sort Mullaney has described; in a number of its verbal and metaphoric expressions, the playtext offers a rather precise geographic index for identifying the location of spaces in the play. The comedy's action begins in Athens, moves to a wood outside the city (traditionally termed fairyland), and returns to Athens. One critic has argued, in a fine discussion of the anamorphic perspectives in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that the play compels us first to look straight on at Athens, then “shifts our perspective by obliging us to consider the forest, then brings Athens back in the third [perspective] and says, ‘Look again’.”12 Yet the playtext's spatial layout is not so much a bipolar (Athens and Forest) as a tripolar configuration, with India sitting as the symbolic and ideological hub of departure and convergence for all the business of fairyland. That is, whatever exchange occurs, regardless of origin, is mediated through the discursive space that is India. Furthermore, “the routes of access” are “cultural and temporal as well as spatial.”13 It seems safe to assume that early modern audiences for A Midsummer Night's Dream came to the theater with a map for reading these local details of Shakespeare's dramatic world. The modern critic's dilemma is (and has been) how to reproduce that map so that its demarcations can be known more precisely.

Like a number of recent scholars, I have found extradramatic texts, travel narratives and medieval romances, useful in reading A Midsummer Night's Dream as Shakespeare's contribution to the literary invention of racial mapping.14 I am not arguing that the play's audiences would have connected it directly to these texts. Rather, these works provide a means of recapturing a set of assumptions about India which were circulating in London at the time of the play's inscription, and with which Shakespeare's audiences could have been familiar. This familiarity did not necessarily require that all members of the audiences had read these narratives or even possessed the same degree of literacy.15 For many Londoners knowledge of India (and Africa and the Americas) would have come orally, from seamen who served on the merchant and fighting ships traversing the Atlantic and Indian oceans.16 These seamen were the most likely conduits for an image of India among those who could not read or, perhaps, afford to purchase the printed texts but who could afford to go to the theater.17 In this manner the play's audiences might have been comprised not only of individuals acquainted with the medieval romance Huon of Bordeaux, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, Robert Greene's The Scottish Historie of James the fourth (the literary sources for Shakespeare's depiction of Oberon), as well as manuscript and printed travel narratives, but also of people for whom India may have been the stuff of a sailor's tavern tale, a map made in the human imagination.

Let us begin to read our map of fairyland by turning to an index Shakespeare could have created for the lost traveler. Under the subject heading “Oberon,” we might find the following citation: see Lord Berners, Huon of Bordeaux.18 One of a number of medieval romances glorifying a culture no longer possible in late-sixteenth-century England, Huon of Bordeaux recounts the history of a young duke who unknowingly slays the son of Charlemagne and, for his crime, is sent to Babylon on a quest that Charlemagne believes will ensure Huon's death. Huon is told to return to Paris with a thousand bears, a thousand hawks, a thousand young men, and a thousand of Babylon's fairest maidens. He is also to bring Charlemagne a handful of the hairs and four of the teeth of Admiral Gaudys, Babylon's ruler. Huon's quest leads him to the East, where he meets Oberon, king of the fairies. Oberon, it turns out, is no ordinary fairy king, first, because he is mortal and, second, because his genealogy is notable. Oberon says that his father was Caesar (who was on his way to Thessally to wage war with Pompey when Oberon was begotten) and his mother “the lady of the privey Isle.” Oberon, chronology notwithstanding, also claims as an older brother Neptanabus, king of Egypt, who is said to have “engendered Alexander the Great.”19

Oberon explains that one fairy who was not invited along with the “many a prince and barons of the fair / and many a noble lady” to attend Oberon's birth delivered the following curse: though Oberon would be the “fairest creature that ever nature formed,” at three years of age he would cease to grow.20 After recounting his genealogy, Oberon informs Huon that he is also “king of Momur, the which is [about].iii. C. leagues from hence” (that is, from where they stand conversing, which is itself two days' ride from Jerusalem).21 With Oberon's help, Huon successfully, though at times painfully, completes his quest and, in addition, wins the “fair” Esclarmonde. At the romance's conclusion Huon comes to Momur, where a dying Oberon, having called together all his subjects, including Arthur, Morgan le Fay, and Merlin (who in this narrative is Morgan le Fay's son), transfers the fairy kingship to Huon (despite Arthur's vigorous objections). Not only is Huon made king of the fairies, but he also takes up residence in Momur, which is “in the far-reaching district that was known to mediaeval writers under the generic name of India.”22

Lord Berners's translation of this thirteenth-century chanson de geste went through at least three editions during the sixteenth century and, significantly, provided a source not only for Shakespeare but also for Edmund Spenser and Robert Greene.23 The romance was also adapted in 1593 by the Earl of Essex's Men and performed, according to Henslowe, as “hewen of burdoche.”24 Though this playtext is lost to us, Spenser's and Greene's texts survive; in their depiction of Oberon, they continue the associations begun in Huon of Bordeaux of the fairy king with the East in general and India in particular.

Book 2 of Spenser's Faerie Queene is the only section of the poem where Huon of Bordeaux's imprint can be easily discerned, for included in the narrative of Sir Guyon's adventure is an account of his genealogy. Toward the end of canto 9, Spenser writes:

Sir Guyon chaunst eke on another
That hight Antiquitie of Faerie lond,
In which when as he greedily did looke,
Th’offspring of Elues and Faries there he fond.(25)

Guyon's ancestry is derived from Elfe, the first man, created by Prometheus, and Elfe's union with “a goodly creature … whom he deemd in mind / To be no earthly wight” and names “Fay.”26

As Sir Guyon continues to read, he discovers that “of these [Elfe and Fay] a mightie people shortly grew, / And puissaunt kings, which all the world warrayd / And to them selues all Nations did subdew.” The first mention of India comes not with Oberon but with Elfin, whom Spenser describes as “him all India obayd, / And all that now America men call.”27 The genealogy ends with Oberon, son of Elficleos and the younger brother of Elferon. When Elferon dies, Oberon inherits the “scepter” and the “rich spoiles and famous victorie” with which his father had advanced the “crowne of Faery.” And in his reign Oberon—“doubly supplide, in spousall, and dominion”—surpassed the achievement not only of his father but of his ancestor Elfin in establishing the Faeries' “power and glorie ouer all.”28

Robert Greene's The Scottish Historie of James the fourth, slaine at Flodden. Entermixed with a pleasant Comedie, presented by Oboram King of Fayeries offers a more three-dimensional portrait of the fairy king and one a bit closer to that presented in Huon of Bordeaux. Though in some ways an ancillary figure in the drama (the presenter of “a pleasant Comedie”), Oberon comes to have a significant role in The Scottish Historie of James the fourth. He is the first character to appear onstage, and throughout the play he surfaces as Bohan's confidant and (to some degree) protector. Like his romance counterpart, Oberon is a catalyst for change, for transformation in the human world. He appears to Bohan ostensibly as an auditor of Bohan's storytelling, but as the play progresses, we recognize the fairy king as the symbolic intervention of fate in Bohan's affairs, rescuing Bohan from his despair and saving the life of Bohan's son.

Relevant here is not Oberon's role in the action of the play but what his representation signals. At the end of the first act, Oberon says,

I tell thee Bohan, Oberon is king,
Of quiet, pleasure, profit, and content,
Of wealth, of honour, and of all the world,
Tied to no place, yet all are tied to me.(29)

Despite his claim of being “tied to no place,” Oberon does in fact tie himself to a specific locale. The dumb show Oberon paints for Bohan is marked by its Asiatic regionalism: the first scene depicts the defeat of Semiramis, “the proud Assirrian Queene,” by Staurobates; the second treats of Cyrus's coronation and his death; and the third scene portrays the murder of Sefostris, a “potentate,” by his “servants” (who, after slaying the king, continue to dine) at a banquet.

What is worth noting in these depictions of Oberon—in Spenser's brief genealogy, Greene's “pleasant Comedie,” or the detailed narrative of Huon of Bordeaux—is the dense geographical umbra that stands at the imaginative center of the fairy king's literary history. Whether he appears in England, Scotland, or the outskirts of Jerusalem, Oberon enters each locale as an already “localized” (thus ethnic) entity. In other words, though all the world may be “tied” to Oberon while he claims to be “tied to no place,” early modern writers insist that we recognize his claim as inaccurate, that we see him as clearly linked to the vast, undifferentiated region called India.30

By the time Shakespeare comes to write A Midsummer Night's Dream, images of an Asiatic or “Indian” Oberon are fairly well established as part of the literary imagining of the fairy king through the auspices of Spenser's and Greene's works. Undergoing something of a shift, however, was the nonliterary imagining of India. With the radical transformation of geographical knowledge produced by early modern mercantilism, Oberon's India gradually began to lose its quasi-mystical, quasi-mythical currency as a generic signifier of a distant imagined place and began to acquire a more precise delineation in terms of cultural and ethnic (or what we would call racial) taxonomies.31 Though the mere mention of the word India still carried with it the figuration of an imaginative site of fabulous wealth, fantastic creatures, and other rarities in the English political consciousness, India also became representable as a real geographic and cultural space, capable of being partitioned, classified, conquered, and exploited. This transformation occurred through the early modern travel narrative.


The publication of travel narratives about India offered something of a corrective to the cultural mythology created by classical and medieval writers.32 English (and other European) travelers no longer expected to find anthropophagi or Amazons in the East; these species now took up residence in the unexplored areas of Africa.33 In addition, with the subdivision of the world into Old and New, and thus also an East and a West Indies, the ideological, literary, and cartographic topos of India had to be rewritten, had to be more precisely localized.34 The “immense, unimaginable distance” adumbrated in medieval and classical accounts of India needed to be contained; and as ships set sail from England, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and the Italian states, cartographers, soldiers, colonizers, and traders attempted, by producing more accurate demarcations of geographical space, to do just that.35 Ultimately these inscriptions would set the stage for the modern ideology of race.

One narrative prototype for modern racial taxonomies is Richard Eden's The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies, and other countreys lying eyther way, towardes the fruitfull and ryche Moluccaes.36 Eden's work contains a translation of Lewes Vertomannus's account of his travels in India. The text is meant to provide the reader with knowledge of the politics, customs, social relations, and physical appearance of the peoples of India, along with information about India's topography. Interwoven with Vertomannus's narrative is a familiar (to our way of thinking) polarization of racial differences, with Europe at one end of the spectrum and Africa at the other. Vertomannus begins by declaring his intent to convey an impression of “the fruitfulness and plentifulnesse” of India.37 His text is replete with descriptions of the regional rulers' wealth and state. “Marvelous rich” becomes a refrain, as does the minute detailing of a ruler's household: the sultan of Cambia “progresses” through all of India, taking with him “four thousand tents and pavillions, also his wife, children, concubines, slaves, four or five of the most courageous horses, monkeys, parrots, leopards, hawks.” Of the king of Narsinga, Vertomannus writes that his “horse with the furniture [i.e., trappings] is esteemed to bee worth as muche as one of our cities, by reason of innumerable jewelles of great price.”38 It is, however, in Vertomannus's description of the physical appearances of Indians that he employs the color-coded grid of what I will label modern racial distinctions. For example, he describes the people of Melacha as being of “blackish ashe colour. Their apparell is like to the Mahumetans of the citie Memphis. … They have very large foreheads, round eyes, and flatte noses.” Of the people of Pego, he writes that the “inhabitants … are like unto them of Tarnassari [another Indian city] but of whiter color, as in a colder region, somewhat like unto ours.” In general, however, the people he meets are reported to be “of weasel colour, enclining to blacknesse, as are the most part of these Indians, being in manner scorched with heate of the Sunne.”39

The physical appearance and wealth of the Indians are not the only matters subject to scrutiny. India's inhabitants, like those of Africa and Europe, profess a variety of religions and include Christians, Jews, and Muslims as well as what Vertomannus and others call “Gentiles,” that is, Hindus and Buddhists. And, somewhat surprisingly, given the internecine struggles of early modern Christian Europe over dogma, Vertomannus often discusses these belief systems with considerable detachment. In the course of relating the cultural and religious behavior of India's peoples, the writer reveals a Eurocentric bias when describing those practices that deal specifically with gender relations. It is here, in that most contested of ideological spaces, that the early modern European traveler develops the racial denotations that later become familiar images not only of India but also of Africa and the Americas.

In the account of his visit to Calcutta, Vertomannus describes what he perceives as an extraordinarily peculiar custom: the king's wife is deflowered by the “Archbishop,” though Vertomannus claims that “only the king of Calecut keepeth this custom.” As we read through Vertomannus's text, however, we discover that this practice occurs in the city of Tarnassarie as well, with one significant difference; instead of the king's wife being given to “the priests to be deflowered,” she is given to a “white man, as to the Christians or Mahumetans, for he will not suffer the Idolaters to do this. The inhabitantes likewise have not to do carnally with their wives, before some white man, of what so ever nation, have first the breaking of them.”40

This deviation from marital norms, as Vertomannus sees it, is not limited to the rulers of Indian cities but, on the contrary, is found at nearly every level of society. Among the gentlemen and merchants, to exchange wives is seen as a matter of courtesy and friendship. Even so, Indian women are judged to have more freedom than their European counterparts. Vertomannus says that it is not uncommon for a woman to be “married to seven husbands, of the which every of them hath his night by course appointed to lye with her: And when she hath brought forth a childe, she may give it or father it to whiche of them she listeth: Who may in no case refuse it.”41 The idea of such sexual freedom among women, of course, violated nearly every ideological code of the European traveler, and the early modern European travel narrative became the space where sexual freedom could be simultaneously presented and condemned. For instance, the Dutch traveler Jan van Linschoten reports that it is common for “the women slaves … [to] slip into some shoppe or corner … where their lovers meet them, and there in hast they have a sport, which done they leave each other: and if she chance to have a Portingal or a white man to her lover, she is so proud, that she thinketh no woman comparable unto her.” Van Linschoten, unlike Vertomannus, elides all religious, ethnic, and class differences among the women of India to generalize that they “are verie luxurious [i.e., lecherous] and unchaste, for there are very few among them, although they bee married, but they have besides their husbands one or two of those that are called souldiers, with whome they take their pleasures.”42

The narrative and geopolitical mapping produced by early modern travelers to India was not just a cartographic reimagining of the world but an ethnographic interpretation of it. As part of the circulation of ethnographic taxonomies, maps were often reproduced in printed texts. In creating these maps and narratives, early modern travelers envisioned themselves as meaningful contributors to a new, global epistemology. More important, the narratives seemed authentic and accurate because the writers had visited the place described, had studied the indigenous peoples and their societies, and had published their findings in a written form that carried no taint of the “poetic.”

Because the observer's status as a reliable informant is reified by this discursive strategy, even his reiteration of a medieval or classical fable acquires a veneer of authenticity. Hence, contrary to the writer's expressed aim, the narratives produce what might be termed a “‘poetics of displacement’”; that is, cultural imagery which simultaneously defines Asia, Africa, and the Americas in terms an early modern European could comprehend and offers new metaphorical terrains for the construction of difference.43 In effect, the written and oral narratives circulating in sixteenth-century England reproduced images of India as a region of “such treasure and rich Merchandize, as none other place of the whole world can afford,”44 even as they constituted it ideologically as a site of gender, ethnic, religious, and political differences.

The India of early modern English narratives is, as Thomas Hahn has argued, an “‘imaginative reality’”: a place where “explorers … and their field of vision [were] framed by the imaginary [i.e., literary] landscape as much as by the real.”45 The poetic cartography of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a familiar one if we know how to read it. Like Africa and the Americas, India is a world where an Amazon and a fairy king can be lovers; a place where the visible signs of difference between Europeans and Indians can be remarked and similarities unacknowledged; a site where exoticism and difference are as conventional as trade and commodities—a place fit for exploration and exploitation. This is the India of Huon of Bordeaux and of the English Jesuit who, when “tolde that he could not want a living in the towne, as also that the Jesuites could not keepe him there without he were willing to stay,” chose to reject the “Cloister, and opened shoppe, where he had good store of worke: and in the end married a Mestizos daughter of the towne, so that he made his account to stay there while he lived.”46 This is the India of Shakespeare's changeling boy.


At the beginning of Act 2, Puck informs one of the queen's fairies (and the audience) that Titania has a “lovely boy,” allegedly the “stol’n” son of an “Indian king,” whom Oberon desires to be a “Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild” (2.1.25). On a textual level Puck has little reason to establish the boy's identity beyond distinguishing him as a source of tension between the fairy queen and king; as I suggested earlier, the play's dramatic structure would not have been violated had this information been omitted or had Shakespeare identified the child as an English boy. Similarly, if the fairies are to be seen as English, there is no obvious reason for Shakespeare to specify India as Oberon's most recent place of resort. Titania demands,

                                                                                                                                                                                              Why art thou here,
Come from the farthest step of India,—
But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
Your buskined mistress and your warrior love,
To Theseus must be wedded. …


Though Titania answers her own question—“Why art thou here”—her words do not entirely explain Shakespeare's invocation of India.

Oberon is, of course, explicitly connected with India in the literary tradition from which Shakespeare draws. However, this explanation does not help us to address the query—why an Indian boy?—posed at the beginning of this essay. Perhaps another way to get at an answer is to examine Shakespeare's characterization in terms of his use of the lexicon engendered by early modern English mercantile activity in India. In this way we can make intelligible India's function as the center of linguistic and ideological exchanges between Athens and fairyland. Like Athens, India is an actual geographic place, and, like fairyland, it is still figured as a place of the imagination. This simultaneity permits the articulation of a racial fantasy in A Midsummer Night's Dream where Amazons and fairies signify an alien yet domestic paradox in an otherwise stable, homogeneous world.

When Titania offers Oberon the reason for her resistance to his wishes, in a poignant (and poetic) vision of female and mercantile fecundity, this vision is, in effect, a mapping of this reality:

His mother was a votress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side …
Marking th’embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following (her womb then rich with my young squire),
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die,
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.


Titania's words in this scene vividly reproduce the idealized imagery in the writings of travelers to India. The votaress embodies what India could (and would) represent to Europe as, like the merchant ships, she returns “from a voyage, rich with merchandise,” to bring Titania the exotic “trifles” of an unfamiliar world.47

Her speech “rich” with the language of English mercantilism, Titania evokes not only the exotic presence of the Indian woman's native land but also the power of the “traders” to invade and domesticate India and, aided by the “wanton wind,” return to Europe “rich with merchandise.” In Shakespeare's “poetic geography,” India becomes the commodified space of a racialized feminine eroticism that (to judge by the written accounts of such men as Vertomannus and van Linschoten) paradoxically excited and threatened the masculinity of European travelers. This racial subtext, which complicates the “shaping fantasy” of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is not obvious when Titania and Oberon first appear onstage. Their initial exchange is accusatory and fraught with erotic tension that masks their far greater conflict.

In response to Titania calling Hippolyta his “buskined mistress and warrior love,” Oberon retorts: “How canst thou thus, for shame, Titania, / Glance at my credit with Hippolyta, / Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?” (2.1.74-76). Oberon then lists the women Theseus has seduced and abandoned, apparently with Titania's aid.48 Titania casually dismisses Oberon's accusation: “these are the forgeries of jealousy” (l. 81). The audience soon discovers what is really at the core of Titania's and Oberon's estrangement: she has refused to give him the child of her votaress, the “little changeling boy.” As the text presents it, Titania's interest in the boy is sentimental, linked to her relationship with his mother and the promise the fairy queen made. Oberon's interest, on the other hand, is textually much more ambiguous. In fact, if both he and Puck are to be taken at their word, Oberon's interest in the Indian boy is primarily one of dominion: possession is linked to Oberon's political authority.

From the beginning both Oberon and Puck make clear that Oberon desires to have the boy as a “henchman” or “Knight of his train.” Furthermore, Oberon's desire for the boy seems very much connected to desire for dominion over Titania. Hence I am inclined to view Oberon's quest for the boy less as the embodiment of fatherly love or pride than as the manifestation of a perceived prerogative to claim possession—to have “all … tied to” him. The paternal interest that many critics argue lies at the heart of Oberon's desire is not evident in his words.49 One finds in his exercise of paternalism the very ideology that made it “the smart thing for titled and propertied families in England to have a black slave or two among the household servants.”50 Like the growing number of non-European (particularly African) children who were imported into England to serve as badges of status for England's aristocracy, the “changeling boy” is desired as an exotic emblem of Oberon's worldly authority. Oberon's desire to claim the Indian boy as his servant should not be trivialized; in another century or so Asian Indians would become the household fashion.

But why the insistence on possession of the Indian boy? Dramatically, both Oberon's and Titania's obduracy is crucial to the plot structure but not dependent on the changeling's being Indian. The answer is to be found in Shakespeare's rewriting of the figure of Oberon and in the larger problem that A Midsummer Night's Dream explores in some detail: gender relations. And, as we shall see, a changeling is not always a mere changeling.

The idea of change (or transformation) is central to the dramatic plot and to the specific resolution of the dissension between Oberon and Titania. In order to dissolve the stalemate, Oberon must produce willingness in Titania to “amend” their “debate”; that is, he must persuade her to change her mind about giving up the Indian boy. The flower, “love-in-idleness,” itself a product of change, enables Oberon to achieve his desire—the changeling child. The curious thing about this situation, and one worth exploring, is why Oberon feels it necessary to provide Nick Bottom as a substitute for the Indian boy.51 Luce Irigaray suggests that men “make commerce of [women] …, but they do not enter into any exchanges with them,” largely because “the economy of exchange—of desire—is man's business.”52 Because there is no other male of equal rank and power with whom Oberon can negotiate an exchange, and because the object he desires is not a wife but a page, he is forced to rewrite the rules governing this “economy of exchange” so that a direct transaction with Titania can take place. Importantly, the objects of exchange must be equivalents, and thus Oberon must provide a changeling for a changeling.

When Nick Bottom reappears from the brake, his head transformed into that of an ass, Snout declares, “O Bottom, thou art changed. What do I see on thee?” (3.1.96). Peter Quince considers Bottom “monstrous” and later declares that Bottom has been “translated” (11. 86, 98). Puck's alteration of Bottom enacts a familiar literary emblem.53 Bottom, intriguingly, is “translated” into neither centaur nor satyr; it is not his body that is altered but his head: “An ass's nole I fixèd on his head” (3.2.17). The alien(ness) Bottom represents is a mixture of the familiar and the foreign; with the exception of his head, Nick Bottom remains distinctly human. What is striking about Puck's trick and Oberon's exploitation of it is not only that it violates the sociocultural endogamy—the commerce that upholds patriarchal traffic in women—but that, in the substitution of the “translated” Nick Bottom for the Indian boy as the other male in the triangular relationship of desire, it irrevocably redefines both sexual and racial parameters in fairyland.

While the boy changeling may be viewed as the object of maternal affection, the adult changeling clearly invokes a different response in the fairy queen. In Titania's bower, Bottom, though subject to the fairy queen, clearly is not perceived as a mere child. On the contrary, as Titania's behavior indicates, Bottom becomes a substitute for Oberon as well. By employing Bottom as the erotic trap that permits him to “steal the boy,” Oberon finds himself ensnared by the “hateful imperfection” of monstrous humanity that he has engendered: “For, meeting her of late behind the wood / Seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool, / I did upbraid her and fall out with her” (4.1.60, 45-47). For Oberon, who is initially pleased with Puck's prank, the “sweet sight” (1. 43) of Titania embracing a “translated” Bottom in her bower eventually loses its charm. Once central to Titania's erotic desires, Oberon finds himself displaced twice: first by a changeling and then, in Bottom, by a monstrous “changeling” to boot. And while Oberon may now possess the Indian boy, it appears that the new changeling has become for the fairy king more than the “fierce vexation of a dream” (1. 66).

Change, rather than dreams, is the defining trope of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Whether in the changed story of the lovers Apollo and Daphne or in the “little western flower,” in Lysander's drug-induced change or in Hippolyta's weariness with the moon—“Would he would change!” (5.1.238)—change generates not something unintelligible and fundamentally alien but something that, because of its composition, is (paradoxically) differently the same. In effect, what is constituted is the hybrid. Even so, Hippolyta's moon, Hermia's Lysander, and the “little western flower” remain intelligible to all as moon, man, and flower despite their transformation. The change that Bottom and the Indian boy literally and symbolically register, on the other hand, is of a more particularized form—it is an ethnic (or racial) change that involves the forcible removal of a person from one culture to another and, in the case of Bottom, a change that produces a phenotypical transformation as well. And, not surprisingly, the ease with which change is accommodated, even accepted, produces general anxiety within fairyland.

At the center of this trope of change is a concept linked to the Spanish term mestizaje, or mixedness. The Diccionario de Uso del Español defines mestizaje as the “cruzamiento de razas” (crossbreeding of races) or the “conjunto de mestizos” (group of mestizos) and relates it to the verb mestizar, defined as “adulterar la puerza de una raza por el cruce con otras” (adulterating the purity of one race by mixing with others).54 Both Bottom and the changeling child exemplify this hybrid state: in Bottom we see the cruzamiento of two species—human and equine (literally, the mulatto)—and in the Indian boy the possibility of human and fairy mixedness (the mestizo).

It is, of course, critically problematic to label Bottom and the Indian boy in the terms of a racial lexicon that is not employed in Shakespeare's play. Yet I believe such a move is both theoretically and heuristically appropriate given Shakespeare's own framing of fairyland as a borderland between India and Athens. In this space, through his “translation” and incorporation into fairyland, Bottom becomes the figurative and literal instantiation of that newly engendered lexical hybrid, the mulatto. Similarly, while the Indian boy's enigmatic textual history must forever occlude the “facts” of his genesis (is Puck right when he declares the boy's father to be an Indian king, or is this merely one more of the mischievous sprite's fabrications?), Titania's narrative of the Indian boy's origins and her own behavior are so symptomatic of the accounts of Indian women by the travelers van Linschoten and Vertomannus that it is worthwhile linking these representations to the emerging linguistic taxonomy of cultural difference. Shakespeare's use of India calls attention to this parallel discourse; and if we look closely at its lexical and taxonomic matrices, we can shed light on the way race works in A Midsummer Night's Dream. As we shall see, the conflicting terrain of fairyland, with its easy violation of borders—both speciegraphical and geographical—adumbrates an ontological engagement with the linguistic complexities of mestizaje.


Etymologically, mestizaje, mestizo, and mestiço trace their origins to the Latin miscere, as does the word miscegenation (miscere = to mix and genus = kind, sort, type). Mulatto, on the other hand, originates in the Latin word mulus, which describes the offspring born of an ass and a mare. Even so, mulatto's semantic genealogy includes miscere, for what produces the offspring is the mixing of what are perceived to be two different species or kinds. Changeling, unlike mestizo, mestiço, or mulatto, only indirectly traces its lexical and semantic genealogy to the Latin miscere.55Changeling's etymology originates in the Latin mutare, yet its semantic instantiations suggest a closer kinship to miscere and translatio.56

The lexicon of mestizaje was used politically and culturally to describe the offspring of a union between European males and non-European females (though with different configurations based on geography): the Spanish term mestizola referred principally to the offspring of Spanish men and American Indian women; mestiço/a described the offspring of Portuguese men and African or Asian Indian or American Indian women;57 and mulatto/a identified the offspring of Spanish men and African women.58 This racializing lexicon entered the English language largely via translations of Spanish and Portuguese travel narratives, though not until Richard Perceval and John Minsheu compiled their bilingual dictionaries was this lexicon codified as part of the English language.59 Familiar modes of categorizing people (according to class or nationality) were no longer useful in the new world that European imperialism was beginning to create—a world suddenly comprised of hybrids, mestizos, and mulattos. Hence the appropriation of such words as race, mestizo, mestiço, and mulatto allowed the English to fill a cultural and lexical gap opened by the inadequacy of more familiar terms such as changeling.60

Predictably, what the new hybridity produced was not an orderly taxonomy but rather a state of lexical and cultural instability, mutability, and permeability. The Indian boy and the transformed Nick Bottom signal a new variant on the notion of race, a variant that silently but insistently calls attention to the details of its sociohistorical genesis. And while I would not insist that Shakespeare drew faithfully on the accounts of mestizaje in such narratives as those of Vertomannus or van Linschoten, I would point to the parallels between Shakespeare's account of the Indian boy's lineage and, for example, Vertomannus's terse report on the “deflowering” of the king of Calcutta's wife. Similarly, we find an analogy between Titania's refusal to give the Indian boy to Oberon and the obdurate Indian woman, who takes “pleasure in carrying [her mestiço child]… abroad … [and who] by no meanes will give it to the father, unlesse it should be secretly stollen from her, and so conveyed away.”61 Titania's unwillingness to give the boy to Oberon (“Set your heart at rest. / The fairy land buys not the child of me” [2.1.122]) may therefore be more than an example of maternal feelings; it may also echo the Indian woman's challenge to Eurocentric, patriarchal assumptions about control of the female body and about that body's ability to destabilize the idea of marking race solely through paternity. Generated in the face of such instability is an anxiety (exemplified in the behavior of both Oberon and the Europeans) about how best to handle such situations.62 If we accept Nick Bottom in his “translated” state as emblematic of the mulatto and the Indian boy as emblematic of the mestiço child engendered in the deflowering of the king of Calcutta's wife, Oberon's vexation at the “sweet sight” of the mulatto in Titania's bower (and his earlier vexation with Titania's fondness for the mestizo) resonates with the European's growing anxiety about the definition of race in the borderlands.

The displacement of the changeling child and the substitution of the adult changeling foreground the problem of unregulated female sexuality and its effect on the existing concept of race. Nick Bottom might then signify a return to Irigaray's notion of “sociocultural endogamy,” the other adult male in the “economy of desire,” one who introduces an unexpected dimension into the equation. Just as the sexual relations of the Indian women expose as illusory the European notion of race within the borders of early modern India, so Oberon's knowledge of Titania taking pleasure in the transformed Bottom calls into question the possibility of sustaining absolute categories of difference. Oberon and his European counterpart each discover the general limits of patriarchal power and the specificity of his own fallibility. What we witness in India and fairyland is the fragmentation of patriarchal ideologies denoting race because women's erotic desires can displace and dispel the sexual continuum upon which race is constituted. It is for this reason that I find less than satisfactory the argument that “Fairy Land is an offstage kingdom, geographically and politically independent of any human territory.”63 Because fairyland is linked to India, a space of mestizaje, it sounds the discordant notes of shifting racial definitions even as it adumbrates a potential solution to the problems engendered by mestizaje. Furthermore, it is precisely because India has become the site where the concept of race (aristocratic genealogy) can easily be destabilized that race must be rewritten in order to posit an ideology capable of handling the superficial differences between Indians and Europeans.

The resolution, therefore, is not the eradication of the concept of race but its reformulation. The “new” idea of race, and its concomitant lexicon, must begin to reflect this possibility (mestizaje) and to contain it. Such containment is achieved, however, not by abandoning the imperial project but by redefining its lexical and ideological taxonomies when dealing with indigenous peoples. As we see in the descriptions offered by Vertomannus, van Linschoten, and others, the imperial project necessitates an essentialism (a “nature”) that increasingly is linked to external appearance, in particular to skin color. Thus the image of the dark-skinned savage, the licentious and barbarous non-European, became the norm, instilling a sense of revulsion among Europeans for the sexual behavior that produces mestizaje. In words different from yet similar to those of the European travelers, Oberon insists that Titania look on the hybrid Bottom and abhor the image and reality of what she has hitherto embraced. Ironically, this changeling's genesis (or paternity) derives from Oberon, and Titania's relationship with the changeling therefore potentially violates two social taboos, incest and miscegenation—the former symbolically and the latter literally. Oberon's dilemma is resolved, even if temporarily, by the restoration of Bottom to his human appearance. The fact that Bottom and the Indian boy are the catalysts for a state of mestizaje in fairyland cannot be erased.

When viewed in the shifting context of early modern England's discourse of race, Oberon's “pity” may be tinged with a more complex emotion, as, in the moment of his victory, he discovers himself supplanted not only by a racially ambiguous male but by one of his own making. Though Bottom's expulsion from fairyland, as well as the Indian boy's expulsion from Titania's bower, may alleviate Oberon's vexation, it does not dispel the racial quandary their existence engenders. While Nick Bottom's return to both his human state and to Athens enacts the restoration of a class and gender hierarchy, it also leaves behind a new vision of a racial landscape, a “new world” where the image of humanity is not the European but a changeling—the mestizola, mestiçola, mulattola. More important, Shakespeare's two changelings in A Midsummer Night's Dream are haunted by the ghostly presence of the historical condition of mestizaje which occasions both Shakespeare's dramatic representation of Indian and the modern Western notion of race.


My analysis has suggested that Shakespeare's comedy continues the racial discourses constituted by travel narratives that represented India as a “territory to be conquered and occupied,” displaying its people as “rich trifles” to sate the European appetite for exotic novelty.64 At the same time, A Midsummer Night's Dream constitutes race as an ideological fissure, producing a problematic dichotomy between race as genealogy and race as ethnicity or physical appearance.

It is this fissure, only recently visible to political criticism, that the director of the SSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream failed to discern in his interpretation of the playtext.65 Indeed, productions of the play become trapped in a historical conundrum whenever there is a decision to cast the Indian boy and put him onstage. The director (and, by extension, the play's readers) cannot avoid the culturally predetermined orientalism built into Shakespeare's geographic allusion. Furthermore, given the cultural role played by Shakespeare's canon in modern English imperialism, the SSC director's decision becomes even more problematic precisely because the Indian boy's presence on the modern stage engenders a localized reading where past and present historical discourses occasionally merge but more often collide. Shakespeare's evocation of India marks an ideological space where the colonizing impulse imposes a mode of representation suitable to the dynamics of an imperial project. Until directors, actors, textual advisors, and scholars begin not only to rethink their assumptions about the ideological purpose of Shakespeare's Indian boy but also to acknowledge the complex and varied images of race in Shakespeare's play, productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream may be destined to rehearse endlessly a racial fantasy engendered as part of imperialist ideology: the fantasy of a silent, accepting native who neither speaks nor resists.

The Indian boy is the most silenced of the play's characters, never given words to express his desires, his self-perception. What if he, rather than Puck, had been given the final word: what would the changeling child have said? What if, after four hundred years, his voice were restored to him? What would he say to the hybrid Bottom? Would the Indian boy declare, as a young white reggae fan in Birmingham, England, did, that

there’s no such thing as “England” any more … welcome to India brothers! This is the Caribbean! … Nigeria! … There is no England, man. This is what is coming. Balsall Heath is the center of the melting pot, ’cos all I ever see when I go out is half-Arab, half-Pakistani, half-Jamaican, half-Scottish, half-Irish. I know ’cos I am [half Scottish/half Irish]… who am I? … Tell me who I belong to? They criticize me, the good old England. Alright, where do I belong? You know, I was brought up with blacks, Pakistanis, Africans, Asians, everything, you name it … who do I belong to? … I’m just a broad person. The earth is mine … you know we was not born in Jamaica … we was not born in “England.” We were born here, man. It’s our right. That’s the way I see it. That’s the way I deal with it.66

Somehow, giving our silent mestizo the voice of another mestizo, rather than that of an academic like myself, seems fitting. The words of this half-Scottish/half-Irish changeling stand as a vivid reminder that it was in the “antique fables,” the “fairy toys” produced in the colonizing dreams of Europeans, that the “shaping fantasies” of modern imperialism began. These words are a reminder that it will be the mestizos—the racialized descendants of those who framed the lexicon and practices of modern imperialism—who, dealing with it, will write the final epilogue to the shaping fantasy of race.


  1. Quoted in Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference,” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1992): 6-23, esp. 10.

  2. The Indian boy appears in a 1906 film version of the play, in Max Reinhardt's classic 1935 film, in two BBC video productions, and in the New York Shakespeare Festival's video production. In nearly all of these productions, the character's costume signifies ethnicity. Additionally, in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production a black actor plays the boy. Illustrations and paintings of Act 1, scene 2, also are eclectic when it comes to representing the Indian boy; for example, Fuseli includes the child while Boydell does not.

  3. See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1979). For a cogent engagement with Said's work, see Lisa Lowe, Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1991).

  4. Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U of California P, 1988), 40.

  5. Frank Reeves, British racial discourse: A study of British political discourse about race and race-related matters (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983), 8. Much work has been done, from a cultural-studies perspective, on theorizing race. Some of the best studies include: Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992); David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future, Sandra Harding, ed. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1993); Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York and London: Routledge, 1989); and the introduction to The Bounds of Race: Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance, Dominick LaCapra, ed. (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1991).

  6. Quotations of Shakespeare plays other than A Midsummer Night's Dream follow The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). Quotations of A Midsummer Night's Dream follow R. A. Foakes's New Cambridge edition (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984).

  7. This usage points to the ambiguity of the term, as in a few early modern dictionaries “horse” is one of the definitions given for race. The word race was also used to describe the quality of wine. This type of lexical ambiguity about nature and appearance, as David Scott Kastan reminded me, is also at play in the Prince of Morocco's use of the word complexion—“mislike me not for my complexion, / The shadowed livery of the burnished sun” (2.2.1-2)—in The Merchant of Venice.

  8. See Donna Haraway's stunning essay “Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture—It’s All in the Family: Biological Kinship Categories in the Twentieth-Century United States” in Reinventing Nature, William Cronon, ed., forthcoming.

  9. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987), preface [n.p.].

  10. Kim F. Hall, “Reading What Isn’t There: ‘Black’ Studies in Early Modern England,” Stanford Humanities Review 3 (1993): 23-33, esp. 25. The parameters for engagement with the notion of race have been redefined by other recent work on the early modern period, including Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, “Dismantling Irena: The Sexualizing of Ireland in Early Modern England” in Nationalisms and Sexualities, Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger, eds. (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 157-71; Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds. (New York and London: Routledge, 1994); Emily C. Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 433-54; and Margo Hendricks, “Managing the Barbarian: The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage,” Renaissance Drama n.s. 23 (1992): 165-88.

  11. Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1988), 6.

  12. James L. Calderwood, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus' Dream,” SQ 42 (1991): 409-30, esp. 410.

  13. Mullaney, 6.

  14. See, for example, Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London and New York: Methuen, 1986); and John Gillies, Shakespeare and the geography of difference (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994). Though not directly exploring questions of race, Stephen Greenblatt's Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991) and Richard Helgerson's Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1992) are thoughtful contributions to the discussion.

  15. Yet I think we can, as Andrew Gurr suggests, assume that audiences of A Midsummer Night's Dream, comprised of nobles, artisans, apprentices, clerks, citizens, and day laborers, literate and illiterate Londoners, would represent a range of knowledge or awareness of what events, people, texts, and ideologies were being alluded to in the plays; see Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987), esp. 80-85.

  16. For example, Richard Hakluyt writes that in his “publike lectures [he] was the first, that produced and shewed both the olde imperfectly composed, and the new lately reformed Mappes, Globes, Spheares, and other instruments of this Art for demonstration in the common schooles, to the singular pleasure, and generall contentment of my auditory” (The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, 12 vols. [Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1904], 1:xviii). While there is, of course, no empirical means of verifying the direct influence of orality in the circulation of these images, I consider Hakluyt's words to be convincing evidence of the validity of my point. On the relationship between oral and literary knowledge, see Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982).

  17. See Gurr, 82-86.

  18. John Bourchier, Lord Berners, The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux, ed. S. L. Lee (London: Early English Text Society, 1887). I have modernized the spelling of quotations from this text.

  19. Lee, ed., 72-73.

  20. Lee, ed., 73. Oberon's other gifts include a magic horn and cup and the power to acquire whatever he desires merely by wishing for it.

  21. Lee, ed., 74.

  22. Lee, ed., 1.

  23. Editor S. L. Lee notes that it is difficult to determine the date of the second edition. He argues for 1570, however, because the colophon to the third edition (which Lee contends is “doubtless a reprint of the first”) states “that the book was translated by Lord Berners ‘in the year of our Lord God one thousand five hundred three score and ten’.” The third edition was printed in 1601 by Thomas Purfoot, “to be sould by Edward White” (Lee, ed., lv-lvi).

  24. See Henslowe's Diary, ed. Walter W. Greg (London: A. H. Bullen, 1904), 16. Henslowe also lists the play under the titles “hewen of burdockes” and “hewen.”

  25. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London and New York: Longman, 1977), II.ix.60.1-4.

  26. Spenser, II.x.71.5-6.

  27. Spenser, II.x.72.1-3 and 5-6.

  28. Spenser, II.x.75.3-5, 8-9, and II.x.76.1. In Spenser's allegory, Oberon figures for Henry VIII and thus becomes the father of Tanaquill or Glorian (Elizabeth). A. C. Hamilton notes that in Roman history Tanaquill was the wife of the first Tarquin, ancestor of Sextus Tarquinius, whose rape of Lucretia is often figured as the genesis of the Roman Republic. Spenser's link of fairy and Roman through the figure of Oberon mimics the account of Oberon's lineage in Huon of Bordeaux and thus continues the mythologizing of England's racial history. For a brilliant discussion of the relationship between Tarquin's rape of Lucretia, republicanism, and Renaissance humanism, see Stephanie H Jed, Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1989).

  29. Robert Greene, The Scottish History of James the Fourth, ed. J. A. Lavin (London: Ernest Benn, 1967), 1.3. [chorus] 4-7.

  30. See Thomas Hahn, “Indians East and West: primitivism and savagery in English discovery narratives of the sixteenth century,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 8 (1978): 77-114. Hahn argues that India variously referred to “all of Asia, as Samuel Purchas declared in the seventeenth century: ‘The name of India, is now applied to all farre-distant Countries, not in the extreeme limits of Asia alone; but even to whole America, through the errour … in the Westerne world, thought that they had met with Ophir, and the Indian Regions of the East’” (78).

  31. See Hahn, 79-88.

  32. For another useful study of the ethnography of travel writing in pre- and early modern Europe, see Mary B. Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600 (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1988).

  33. Here I am referring to Leo Africanus's Geographical Historie of Africa (London, 1600) and George Best's A true discourse of the late voyages of discouerie … (London, 1578).

  34. See Gillies, passim.

  35. Gupta and Ferguson, 10.

  36. Richard Eden, The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies, and other countreys lying eyther way, towardes the fruitfull and ryche Moluccaes (London, 1577). Quotations from the narrative of Lewes Vertomannus follow this edition.

  37. Vertomannus in Eden, 354v.

  38. Vertomannus in Eden, 382r and 386v.

  39. Vertomannus in Eden, 403v, 401v, and 382r.

  40. Vertomannus in Eden, 388v and 399r.

  41. Vertomannus in Eden, 390r.

  42. John Hvighen van Linschoten. his Discours of Voyages into ye Easte & West Indies. Devided into Foure Bookes (London, 1598), 62 and 60.

  43. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988), 10.

  44. Van Linschoten, “To the Reader.”

  45. Hahn, 91.

  46. “The report of John Huighen van Linschoten concerning M. Newberies and M. Fitches imprisonment, and of their escape, which happened while he was in Goa” in Hakluyt, 5:512.

  47. In an unpublished essay, Joan Pong Linton has noted that, within the early modern English lexicon, trifles was generally used to describe the type of exchanges between Native Americans and English sailors. For a different analysis of relations of exchange between the English and Native Americans, see Pong Linton, “Jack of Newbery and Drake in California: Domestic and Colonial Narratives of English Cloth and Manhood,” ELH 59 (1992): 23-51.

  48. One wonders whether this accusation might also imply that Titania is the real object of Theseus's love, that it is for love of her that he left the other women.

  49. In this I diverge from Louis A. Montrose, who reads this conflict in terms of the psychology of the nuclear family, where Oberon's efforts are seen as an “attempt to take the boy from an infantilizing mother and to make a man of him” (“A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, eds. [Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1986], 65-87, esp. 74). Allan Dunn also sees the play in terms of this psychology, though he reads this familial conflict from the changeling's point of view, in his “The Indian Boy's Dream Wherein Every Mother's Son Rehearses His Part: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 15-32. It seems to me that both monarchs operate within a feudal ideology about social responsibilities and status. Thus the Indian boy elicits from the monarchs very different interpretations of their social roles.

  50. Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984), 9. See also Folarin Shyllon, Black People in Britain 1555-1833, published for The Institute of Race Relations (London: Oxford UP, 1977); and James Walvin, The Black Presence in Britain (London: Orbach and Chambers, 1971).

  51. The substitution of Nick Bottom as the object of Titania's affections, his regression to an infantile state, and the sexual significance of this new relationship have long received critical attention. For an insightful examination of sexuality, bodily functions, and shame in A Midsummer Night's Dream, see Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1993), esp. 125-43.

  52. Luce Irigaray, “Women on the Market” in This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1985), 172 and 177.

  53. For a discussion of Apuleius's The Golden Ass and Ovid's Metamorphoses as sources for Shakespeare's representation of Bottom, see Foakes, ed., 9-10.

  54. María Moliner, Diccionario de Uso del Español, 2 vols. (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1967), 2:402.

  55. See, for example, Thomas Middleton's and William Rowley's The Changeling. In its common usage in early modern England, changeling referred to a person put in place of another and, in particular, to a child secretly substituted for another child by fairies. It was also used to describe dramatic and inexplicable shifts in human behavior.

  56. Translation's etymology originates with the Latin word translatio, which is derived from the union of trans and ferre (away from/across and to carry/to bear, respectively). Translation as Shakespeare uses it, however, seems to evoke a signification more akin to the semantics of miscere—that is, a mixing of two things to produce one—than to the notion of translatio, to carry or bear away. Peter Quince's use of the word translated insinuates this connection as it continues the pun created by Snout's use of the word change.

  57. The Portuguese racial lexicon also included the term castiço: castiço referred to a Portuguese born in India, while mestiço described any Asian, African, or New World native who had a European ancestor.

  58. The word mulatto/a, of course, immediately evokes an image of the animal, something the other two terms do not suggest. But, and this is crucial to our understanding of the link between language and sexual reproduction, the word mulatto/a also implies the inability to fix the idea of race, something the other two terms imply as well. I have generalized the gender of these relations not because Spanish and Portuguese women were absolutely uninvolved in the colonial process but because there is little evidence to indicate whether they were involved in miscegenous relations with native men.

  59. In his 1623 A Dictionary in Spanish and English, John Minsheu offers his readers an “enlarged and amplified” version of Richard Perceval's 1594 Biblioteca Hispanica. Minsheu's aim was to provide “for the further profit and pleasure of the learner or delighted in this tongue.” Minsheu's dictionary goes far beyond Perceval's not only in sheer number of words but also in its inclusion of words that mark racial identity.

  60. I give both the Spanish and Portuguese spellings for mestizo to resist the totalizing of Spanish and Portuguese cultures as homogeneous. While linguistically the two nations are quite similar, they are distinct entities. In both languages mulatto has the same spelling.

  61. Van Linschoten, 62.

  62. In 1510 Affonso de Albuquerque, viceroy of the Portuguese settlement at Goa, instituted a policy prohibiting marriages between Portuguese men and “the ‘black women’ of Malabar—in other words dark-skinned women of Dravidian origin, who were often termed ‘Negresses’ by the Portuguese” (C. R. Boxer, Race Relations in the Portuguese Colonial Empire 1415-1825 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963], 64-65).

  63. Homer Swander, “Editors vs. A Text: The Scripted Geography of A Midsummer Night's Dream,Studies in Philology 87 (1990): 83-108, esp. 87. Swander's analysis is primarily concerned with the staging of the play rather than its internal geography. In an analogous discussion with different conclusions, Gary Jay Williams looks at a “semi-operatic adaptation” of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in 1816. Williams argues that the “interesting and historically significant text of” this production is its “staging and the new pictorial scenery, whose vocabulary must be read in the light of empire,” thus specifically recognizing the play's dependence upon a specific geographical and political “human territory” (“The Scenic Language of Empire: A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1816,” Theatre Survey 34 [1993]: 47-59, esp. 47).

  64. Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), 131.

  65. Arguing that “the least interesting motivation behind the Indian Boy conflict would be the excuse that Oberon sincerely needs a page or ‘henchman’,” the director chose to highlight the sexual tensions of the play from a different angle (Danny Scheie, “Program Notes on A Midsummer Night's Dream” [Santa Cruz, 1991], 32).

  66. Quoted in Gupta and Ferguson, 10.

Joyce Green MacDonald (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Sex, Race, and Empire in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” in Literature & History, 3rd Series, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 60-77.

[In the following essay, MacDonald explores the implications of a black Cleopatra who uses her sexuality to thwart Roman imperial power.]

In Act I of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, sweetly torturing herself with thoughts of her absent lover, implores Antony to

Thinke on me,
That am with Phoebus amorous pinches blacke,
And wrinkled deepe in time.(1)

Along with Philo's disgusted observation as the play opens that Antony's formerly martial eyes ‘now turne / The Office and Devotion of their view / Upon a Tawny Front’ (I.1.6-8), Cleopatra's self-definition as ‘blacke’ assigns a clear racial difference from the Romans to the Egyptian queen.2 Except for an appendix in Janet Adelman's 1973 study of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, however, sustained critical attention to the question of his Cleopatra's blackness has been rare.3 Indeed, Michael Neill, its most recent editor, declares in his thoughtful discussion of the play that ‘the issue of racial difference in Antony and Cleopatra’ is ‘relatively insignificant’.4

In part, I think, Neill's conclusion follows from his rejection of a previous tendency to read the play as offering an ‘uncomplicated endorsement of racialist and sexist essentialisms’ (86); several critics have exposed the operation of ‘sexist essentialisms’ in the play.5 At the same time as his critical evaluation of the play is unwilling to attach too much significance to racial difference, however, Neill's stage history also points out that theatrical production has succeeded almost entirely in suppressing what the text does suggest about color and culture: ‘it is a telling paradox of the play's stage history that, despite Shakespeare's clearly envisaging Cleopatra as a North African queen whose skin is either “tawny” or “black”, there is no history of black Cleopatras as there has been, since the triumphs of Ira Aldridge in the mid-nineteenth century, a series of striking black Othellos' (65). Tracing the rarity of casting a black actress in the role of Cleopatra to ‘the same Orientalism’ (65) which gave audiences blackface and brownface Othellos, Neill notes that despite the increasing recent availability of such classically trained performers ‘no major company has been willing to capitalize on this development to explore the play's treatment of racial and cultural otherness’ (66). I am not certain whether ‘racial otherness’ here is the same thing as the ‘racial difference’ Neill elsewhere says does not significantly matter in the play, but I do agree with him that the casting of white Cleopatras constitutes a denial of representation.6

Most discussions of race or culture in Antony and Cleopatra present themselves in terms of orientalism, which has been characterized as ‘a praxis of … male gender dominance, or patriarchy; the Orient was routinely described as feminine, its riches fertile, its main symbols the sensual woman, the harem, and the despotic—but curiously attractive—ruler’.7 What I would like to do by discussing the Renaissance Cleopatra as an African woman is to differentiate racial from sexual difference as they both operate in a politics of imperialism.

In an earlier paper, I argued that Aldridge's performance as Othello unsettled the economy of white masculine superiority and erasure of black masculinity which marked antebellum productions.8 Here, I would like to try to extend my inquisition into the performance of racial identity in Renaissance drama by entertaining another proposition: if we accept this Cleopatra's reference to her dark skin as literal, the way in which she explains its origins does indeed race as well as gender her subjectivity in ways which depart from the traditional portrayals of those other North African queens in whose company I believe, along with Neill, she properly belongs.9 As a woman, and a ‘blacke’ woman at that, Cleopatra and her impromptu mythography signify all the more powerfully because of the scarcity of black women in early modern representations of race. Accepting the frequently shifting range of meaning attached to such designations of racial identity as ‘black’ in the period, critics such as Kim Hall and Lynda Boose still note the resistance of readers to accepting that Renaissance uses of ‘black’ could sometimes literally mean ‘of African descent’.10 Such resistance precludes asking questions about the possible representational places occupied by blackness, and perhaps particularly by black women, in the period's insistent sexualizations of imperial, social, and cultural value.11

As Adelman early pointed out and as a distinguished body of work on meanings attached to questions of racial identity in the Renaissance has detailed, ‘race’ in the period was understood to turn on questions of lineage, nation, or region as frequently as it was understood to refer directly to skin color.12 However, this fullness of meaning, and its difference from modern understandings, should not blind us to the fact that the early-modern literature of Africa and Africans clearly attests that formulations of ‘race’ in Renaissance culture frequently explored precisely the difference in skin color that Shakespeare brings to our attention in Antony and Cleopatra.13 To see race as an essential quantity in this play is to underestimate this rich and contradictory range of meaning, as well as to fail to appreciate how contested, how hybrid, notions of Roman and Egyptian identity were in the period the play dramatizes.14 I want to look at the concept of Cleopatra's ‘race’ as it appears in her long textual tradition, and thus attempt to excavate its roles from broader attention to the play's orientalist and imperialist qualities. To speak meaningfully about Cleopatra's race is to include in one's use of the term an account of the ideological work race did (and does), work which was often enabled by and proceeded in tandem with the writing of other kinds of difference from a subject who is conceived of in this case as not only white, but also Roman (or English), not only male but also a heterosexual dominant male. As an African, a woman, and a queen determined to establish and maintain herself in power, Cleopatra embodies three potent sources of threat to the masculine and white project of establishing Roman empire.

Race in early modern Cleopatra texts signifies both as Neill's organizing fiction, and as a literal representation of cultural alterity according to the perspective of Roman (and/or masculine and/or white) dominance.15 In the differences in the way Shakespeare's play and some other narratives of the bonds between Rome and Africa produce the links between race, empire, and sexuality, I believe we can see the reasons why the self-proclaimed ‘blacke’ skin of Shakespeare's queen is not incidental, but central, to the cultural and imperial story it tells.

In order to specify just how I believe the possibility of a ‘blacke’ Cleopatra contradicts other early modern refusals to identify foreign queens as racially different from their political opponents, I begin with the story of an antecedent African queen, Elissa of Carthage. As does the Cleopatra tradition, the story of Elissa's escape from her home in Phoenicia and her founding of a new empire in North Africa turns on a specifically historical moment of cultural confrontation. For example, Arthur Golding's translation of the classical historian Justin's Abridgement of the histories of Trogus Pompeius (1564), an important collection of Roman views of Hellenistic culture, tells us that her native city of Tyre was founded by the Phoenicians ‘the yere before the destruction of Troye’, thus contextualizing one story of empire within another held to be of particular significance to Britain.16 Margo Hendricks has persuasively argued that Marlowe's depiction of Aeneas' repudiation of Dido (with whom Elissa was identified in the Renaissance) serves as a kind of allegorization not only of English imperial might generally but also of English defeat of the north Africans with whom their hated Spanish enemies were deeply conflated in the period.17 Thus, looking backward to Ellisa's moment of the dissolution and foundation of mighty empires reveals a pattern of mastery whose racial inscriptions are articulated through its constructions of gender: male Aeneas over female Dido, the seed of Troy and Britain over that of Phoenicia and Carthage.

The account of Elissa's triumph and eventual death in Carthage provided in Golding's Justin insists on this mutual constitution of gender and race, although I believe it employs senses of ‘race’ which emphasize nationality and culture as well as more explicitly connect skin color to an essentialized notion of character. Fleeing from her evil brother-in-law Pygmalion, who has already murdered her husband Sychaeus, Elissa makes landfall in Cyprus. There, she and her followers see the local custom of having their young unmarried girls earn their ‘marriage money’ through prostitution and, in her role as leader of the expedition, she makes a quick decision: ‘Elisa commaunded her men to ravishe foureskore or thereaboutes that wer virgins … to the entent her younge men might have wives, and the city increase of issue’ (fol. 88).

Like the Rome which later opposed it in the Punic wars, Carthage's posterity was assured through an act of imperial rape.18 What matters in such rapes of state is not so much the act of sexual violence at its center (note the offhand numbering of ‘foureskore or so’ victims of kidnap and presumably forced intercourse), but the colonizing assumptions underlying the crime. Presumably Elissa and her followers act on their belief that marriage to a fugitive and a stranger would be better than an even sexual exchange with a countryman. This sense of sexual exclusivity will drive Elissa's own behavior: she will later claim loyalty to the memory of her dead husband as the prime reason for choosing suicide rather than marriage to Hiarbas, king of Mauretania. In the midst of this story of rape and possibly incest as well (Pygmalion's full intent toward her is never quite clear), Elissa remains determinedly chaste. This determination obviously differentiates her from the Cypriot virgins who freely commercialize sex as a customary prerequisite to marriage, but it also and perhaps more significantly works to remove her from the sexualized arena in which empires are founded and maintained. The legend of Elissa produces her as a kind of female worthy, a good woman who is free to devote herself to the posterity of her race precisely because she will deny herself children and sexual connection. Golding's Justin concludes the episode by informing us that ‘As long as Carthage was unvanquished, she was worshipped for a goddess’ (fol. 90).

If Elissa's sponsorship of the rapes at Cyprus thus suggests two ways—one biological, one cultural—in which constructions of female sexuality can matter to the colonialist project, her climactic encounter with the neighboring King Hiarbas of Mauretania clearly points to the colonizing of race by gender and nationality. Having heard of Elissa's extraordinary accomplishments at Carthage, Hiarbas is determined to have her for his wife, regardless of how she may view his proposal. His ambassadors, reluctant to present Hiarbas' demand of marriage as baldly to her as he presented it to them, necessarily ‘wente to woorke wyth her craftely after the nature of Afres, declaringe that theyr kynge demaunded some personne, that could learn hym and his Afres more civill manners and trade of lyvynge, but he coulde fynde none that would vouchsafe to forsake his owne kinfolke, to go among such barbarous people that lived after the manner of brute beastes’ (fol. 89). In effect, Hiarbas' ‘Afres’ force Elissa to live up to her civilizing mission: if she is as genuinely committed to spreading civilization as the foundation of Carthage suggests she is, then she must accompany them back to Mauretania, where her talents are so desperately needed. The deceitful ‘Afres’ here remove Elissa from her role as an imperial commodifier of foreign women's sexuality and put her in the same position as those maidens whom her followers kidnapped: they will decide how her sexuality ought to be used. Her decision to burn herself alive atop of a funeral pyre ‘made to pacify the ghoste of her fyrst husbande’ (fol. 90) rather than marry Hiarbas allows her to maintain her chastity and avoid the Cypriot women's subject position in this gendered and sexualized discourse of empire. As importantly, it permits her to escape a miscegenous bond with Hiarbas, through embrace of cultural controls on her body and her sexuality; in this way, rules of gender difference may be seen to underwrite one of the primary principles of racial difference. The refusal of a sexual bond with a cultural opponent makes a heroine of her; when the city is conquered, as she herself refused to be, then she will fall from the pantheon.

In Justin, race operates to associate Hiarbas' treacherous, deceitful ‘Afres’ with a particular culture or nationality, the ‘barbarous’ Mauretanians. He is comparatively muted on Elissa's ‘race’, emphasizing instead the identity of colonizer and conqueror she shares with the Romans who will follow her dominion in North Africa. For imperial purposes, this indirection, combined with the depth of her self-consecration to her lawful patriarchally-chosen husband, in effect ‘races’ her white; she functions like a continent, conquering Roman.

The legend of Elissa's discipline and heroism won a place for women in epic adventure precisely by decontaminating the idea of Woman of its negative sexual connotations, a necessary prerequisite to giving her an imperial identity, and by displacing the concept of racial difference onto her male Mauretanian adversaries. In Justin, racial difference in the modern sense of skin color signifies most powerfully in the conflicts between wouldbe colonizers and their opponents; Elissa herself is primarily textualized as a gendered and sexualized being. And yet the use she makes, or declines to permit to be made, of her sexuality also connotes a ‘racial’ identity, tracing the links between sexuality and colonial mastery outlined by Paul Brown.19 In contrast to this displacement of blackness from the figure of the African queen—a displacement which enables the essentializing of her gender—Shakespeare's Cleopatra is both racially and sexually different from her Roman opponents. Her ‘blacke’ skin and her powerful sexuality together work to define the nature of the political challenge she presents to Rome's designs in Egypt.

The Renaissance saw the historical Cleopatra as a woman whose corruption was most immediately manifest in her use of her sexual power as a weapon over Roman heroes. This sexual power was explicitly presented as a challenge to the integrity of the family-based image of Roman society beloved of Renaissance classicists, who tended to reproduce late-republican Rome's concerns with lineage and family in the image of their own era's usage of the family as an instrument of political and sexual control.20 Aemilia Lanyer, for example, imagines a Cleopatra who, while unquestionably beautiful, is so ‘unaccompanied with virtue’ that she provoked the split between Antony and Octavius:

Beautie the cause Antonius
wrong’d his wife,
Which could be decided but by sword:
Great Cleopatraes Beautie and defects
Did worke Octaviaes wrongs, and his

The Egyptian queen in the Countess of Pembroke's 1594 translation of Garnier's Antonie reproaches herself for causing Antony's desertion of the field at Actium:

My face too lovely caus’d my wretched case.
My face hath so entrap’d, so cast us downe,
That for his conquest Caesar may
it thanke,
Causing that Antony one army lost
The other wholy did to Caesar yeld.

She affirms to her maid ‘Eras’ that she is ‘sole cause’ of his disgrace: ‘I did it, only I’.22 Here, the heterosexual attraction which is disciplined to imperial purpose in other narratives of Roman progress in Africa is set free to become a disruptive force not only in matters of state, but in Antony's private household as well. These two female authors negotiate their way into writing by omitting the political issues at stake in Rome's struggle to bring Egypt within the forming empire, refusing the possibility of a multiply-formed identity for Cleopatra by essentializing her gender. Indeed, Pembroke's ‘translation’, while remaining generally faithful to Garnier's original, further simplifies the gender issues surrounding the queen by omitting his emphasis on her power to attract and thus eroding the grounds for considering the nature of Antony's relation with her.23 While Lanyer's reproduction of Cleopatra within a precisely defining discourse of outlaw female sexuality makes no notice of Cleopatra's race, Pembroke believes she is white; at line 428 ‘Eras’ here sympathetically wonders why the queen ‘Water(s) with teares’ the ‘fair alablaster’ of her face. She also seems to speak from within a dominant race's perspective as she begs her servant Euphron to take her and Antony's children to some distant exotic place where they will be safe—where, for example, ‘Black æthiopes to neighbour Sunne do shewe … their freezed locks’ (1862, 1861). As she speaks from within a partriarchal discourse of beauty and of family value, Pembroke's queen also speaks a European and white orientation of native and foreign, black and white. Her whiteness domesticates her to the dominant perspective Pembroke adopted and adapted in her own writings.24

While also featuring a white queen, Thomas May's translation of Lucan's Pharsalia, the Silver Age epic of the civil wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey and one of the fullest Renaissance accounts of Rome's political progress in Egypt, dilates on Pembroke's almost offhanded racing of Cleopatra. As is the question of Elissa's race in Justin's History, this Cleopatra's whiteness is more broadly opened explicitly to include a range of historical and cultural meanings rigorously excluded from the purview of Pembroke's Senecan concerns.25 Indeed, May's translation prefaces its account of Caesar's ultimate triumph over Pompey with a scene of Caesar surveying the ruins of Troy, thus plainly orienting itself in relation to the master narrative of empires won and lost, of civilizations in conflict, of the necessity of firmly opposing matters of love and matters of war. Identifying himself as ‘The greatest heire of all Iulus race’, Caesar raises an altar to the ruins' mute evidence of Rome's heroic ancestry and vows that if Troy's shades will ‘Prosper my course’,

thankefull Rome shall raise
Troyes walls againe, your people Ile restore,
And build a Roman Troy.(26)

Almost immediately after making this vow, Caesar receives the gift of Pompey's head, draped in an Egyptian mantle; King Ptolemy of Egypt, Pompey's ally and brother-in-law, has sold him to Caesar in exchange for his help in maintaining his own throne. The power of his own myths of origin and historical destiny thus initially seem dominant over any possible competing Egyptian design, but he is proven wrong, in Lucan's view, by the evidence of his affair with Cleopatra, which occupies most of the poem's tenth and final book:

Our Capitall she with her Sistrum scarr’d,
With Ægypt's base effeminate rout prepar’d
To seize Rome's Eagles, and a triumph get
Or captiv’d Caesar; when at Lencas fleet
It doubtfull stood, whether the world that day
A woman, and not Roman should obey.


In Lucan's formulation of the fateful impropriety of Caesar's love, ‘woman’ is syntactically opposed to ‘Roman’, and not to ‘man’: for all practical purposes, ‘Roman’ means ‘man’, or at least did before Caesar's fateful encounter with Cleopatra. Here, gender anxiety is opened to include not only Celopatra's womanhood, but also Egyptian and Roman manhood. Cleopatra's lavish court culture in effect disrupts the identification with fathers' unforgiving labor which was the hallmark of the republican period, suggested here by Caesar's pious impulse at the sight of Troy's ruins. In May's Lucan, gender helps make the role of ‘racial’ difference in this imperial conflict between Roman and Hellenistic value visible. Indeed, Lucan often seems convinced that all the delicate political maneuvering designed to let Egypt enter the forming empire while saving its rulers' Ptolemaic face is a desperate compromise destined to result in the compromise and erosion of Roman value:

We let thy Isis in Romes temples dwell,
Thy deify’d dogs, and sorrow causing bell:
Osiris, whom thou shewest, while thou weep'st,
A man; our god in dust thou Ægypt keep'st.

(Book 8, P2)

Political expediency had sometimes dictated that the natural order should be overthrown and men placed in a subject position to women, as English history had demonstrated, but at least obedience to great ‘Eliza’ had not entailed worship of such an obvious and overblown sexual ripeness; rather the contrary.27 Nor had subjection to the rule of England's exemplary Eliza, so determined to resist the importunings of male suitors, threatened national sovereignty as Caesar's obsession with Cleopatra threatened Rome's identity as the conquering male in the imperial bond.

Lucan's Cleopatra is as sexually alluring as Lanyer's and Pembroke's, but with a major difference; she is a sexual agent, one whose sexuality is allowed to speak cultural as well as gender difference from the helplessly fascinated Caesar. He is moved despite himself by Cleopatra's distinctly unRoman view of the union between sexual and imperial projects as she implores him to enforce her late father's will, under whose terms she was left a coequal ruler of Egypt ‘to enjoy / My brothers crowne, and marriage bed’ (10: S).28 Caesar, May notes, maintains enough control over himself to realize that granting Cleopatra political authority in Egypt would be disastrous to Rome's own best interests there,

But beauty pleades, and that incestuous face
Prevailes; the pleasures of a wanton bed
Corrupt the judge.

Just as Lucan's Cleopatra owns her sexualized cultural difference in a way that is suppressed in Lanyer's or Pembroke's versions, the Roman history also allows Cleopatra's sexuality an imperial dimension which is absent from the women's texts. She invites Caesar to a rich feast, where the bounty of Egypt is summed up and made available in her body:

Her snowy breasts their whitenesse did display
Thorough the thin Sidonian tiffenay
Wrought, and extended by the curious hand
Of Ægypt's workmen.

Powerfully attracted by a foreign queen who has every intention of fueling his desire, Caesar is ‘taught’ by this spectacle ‘The riches of the spoiled world to take’ (10: S3). The territorial and personal ambition that were to become issues in the conspiracy against Caesar are here linked to his lust for what ought properly to have remained a mere object of acquisition but became instead a living emblem of an entire ‘spoiled world’. The sexual element of early modern colonial discourse, so familiarly regarded as a social instrument for civilizing outlanders' savagery and bringing them peacefully into the frame of European civil order29, is here strikingly turned against the would-be builder of empire. Cleopatra's sexual authority over Caesar embodies her country's resistance to Roman mastery. Earlier in Lucan's account of Rome's first African encounters, Roman conquerors are shown in the act of civilizing and making productive the unnatural barrenness of Libya, ‘Barren in all that’s good’, and yet sprouting monsters where the venom from Medusa's severed head dropped onto it. It took the Romans to show ‘The Mauretanian men’ how to make use of their sole natural resource, their country's rich forests of ‘Citron wood’; until the Romans arrived, the Mauretanians had been ‘contented with the shade’ (Book 9: Q4). One race of men here easily masters another, but when the foreigner is both a woman and a queen, hierarchies of gender cancel hierarchies of race.

Other accounts of Egypt further articulate Lucan's suggestions of a link between sexuality, gender, and the Egyptian land.30 Plutarch's essay ‘Of Isis and Osiris’ bases its analysis of Isis' place in Egyptian cosmology on her love for her brother and mate, Osiris. After Osiris, the chief god of Egypt, was murdered and dismembered by their half-brother Typhon, Isis found and reassembled the scattered pieces of Osiris' body, all except for his penis, which Typhon had thrown into the river Nile. Isis fashioned him another member, ‘called Phallus, which she consecrated’; she built a temple wherever she found a part of his body, eventually burying his reassembled body in a special coffer and venerating it in commemorative ceremonies.31 Plutarch's interpretation of this myth holds that the waters of the sacred river Nile represent Osiris' seed, and ‘the body of Isis is the Earth or land of Egypt’, (1059) made fruitful by the river's annual flood. Isis and Osiris were also identified with the moon and the sun, so that she also became the patron of the fertility of human women. Egyptians believed that during the new moon, Osiris lay buried in his special coffer, that the gaiety and civility he embodied were gone from the earth. As the moon waxed full, it provided proof that Isis had conquered the power of death through her special love, that she had conceived and was growing in pregnancy. As the special goddess of this pregnant moon, Isis both governed the mortal world of change and depended on the physical love of her brother and mate to fulfil her cosmic destiny. Plutarch characterizes her as ‘the feminine part of Nature’, who has ‘an infinite number of names’ (1065).

The goddess Isis and the Egyptian queens who identified themselves with her32 were worshipped as the ‘mother of the world’ (1061), capable of bringing order and wholeness out of chaos and pain. The mysterious fruitfulness of the Egyptian soil and Shakespeare's queen who bodies it forth (‘great Caesar … ploughed her, and she cropt’, II.ii.232-33) rehabilitates the African soil on which the last of these imperial contests played itself out. Shakespeare's play accomplishes this reformation through recourse to a mythological tradition which not only assigns cosmic authority to a woman, but which locates that authority in a spiritual construction of her sexuality which lay clearly outside any construction available under terms of a more conventionally patriarchal culture, and which intimately identifies this entirely foreign sexual power with the landscape over which she rules.

To return to Shakespeare's ‘blacke’ Cleopatra after seeing the conjoined places occupied by ‘race’ (in its cultural and geographic senses), gender, and the imperial process in other accounts of Roman Africa and Egypt is, I hope, to be readier to accept that it matters that she is through her own declaration physically different from her Roman lover(s). Her dark skin, in the terms of the well-known proverb from the period about washing the Ethiop, is a literal emblem of the impossibility—or at least, extreme difficulty—of the task the Romans have set themselves in conquering Egypt. That Antony and Cleopatra are bound together across lines of race as well as of imperial purpose further illustrates the infirm status of the Roman identity for which Octavius lays down the guiding assumptions in the play, and to which the Hellenism of the historical Antony was perceived to pose such a potent threat.33

As well as sexually removing the perhaps already-alienated Antony from his solidarity with Rome, Cleopatra's deliciously offhand allusion to her sexual power, and the story of racial origins it engenders, also negates the patriarchal and dynastic terms under which Renaissance classicists conceived of Rome's ‘right’ to empire, denying colonialism's (hetero)sexual and masculinist constitution. The dark skin Cleopatra identifies as the result of Apollo's rough sexual play was most commonly reported as the result of a cosmic accident, when the chariot of the sun and the mighty winged horses which drew it veered out of their normal course under the poor management of Apollo's half-mortal son Phaeton. The Countess of Pembroke's Ivychurch is typical: the unruly horses ‘note the vulgar people’, and ‘the bridles are the stay of governement’. Resolute rulers should ‘spare the whip, reine them hard’.34 Phaeton's sad story ‘to the life presents a rash and ambitious Prince’, ‘altogether unfit for government; which requires mature advice, and supernaturall knowledge’. The horses he is too weak to control ‘are the common people, unruly, fierce, and prone to innovation: who finding the weaknesse of their Prince, fly out into all exorbitancies to a generall confusion’.35 Phaeton's presumption in imagining he could drive his father's horses is a prime example of the ‘madnesse’ resulting from the arrogance of the well-born; the ‘ruling of men, or guiding of a Kingdom, is ars artium, and a worke of no lesse difficulty then the ruling of Phoebus his charriot’36

In order to rewrite the origin of her dark skin as the result of an intentional coupling between herself and the sun god, Cleopatra erases Phaeton; only Phoebus has determined her color and racial identity, and only by his loving touch. Cleopatra's information that a god's desire for her and not any misfortune lies at the heart of the observable facts of racial difference refuses the authoritarian applications of the myth and recasts the place of female sexuality and agency in Roman productions of the imperial process. Her spontaneous myth of origins also sets aside the patrilineal basis of the activity of making empires (‘heire of all Iulus race’), since she tells of an irregular union without issue. Instead of a story about why concentrating power in the hands of one strong authoritarian ruler is best, Cleopatra links her race to a story about masculine desire and masculine surrender. When Antony installs Cleopatra, her son by Julius Caesar, and ‘all the unlawfull issue, that their Lust /… hath made between them’ ( as rulers of Lower Egypt, refusing the value of the marriage of state with Octavius' sister, he refuses as well the authority of a precisely-defined patriarchal ‘family’ as an authorizing model for the conduct of public life.37

Octavius tries and fails to honour the ties between Roman men through the use of women—first Octavia, then, after Antony's death, Cleopatra. To include Cleopatra in his triumph would be to announce his defeat not only of the alternate, womanist order Antony and she tried to establish in Egypt, but also, perhaps, to renounce the power of his own identification with the man who was his ‘Brother’, his ‘Competitor’, his ‘Mate in Empire’ (V.i.42, 43). Regarding Antony both as his sturdily homosocial ‘brother’ and as his more ambiguous ‘Mate’, Octavius' grief and determination here suggest how subject to flux the play's apparently stable gender and racial hierarchies actually are.38 Defeating Cleopatra and obliterating the proof of her power over Antony closes Egypt's tantalizingly open formulations of race and gender identity by firmly delimiting a masculine and unitary Roman body of state.39

Cleopatra's death and transumption to another plane of being is undertaken in conscious spite of the Roman masculinist order. The degree to which she succeeds in proclaiming the value of her lineage and her sexuality in creating a world that is independent of and opposite to Rome is perhaps nowhere indicated as strongly as in Antony's heartbroken reaction to the false news of her death in Act Four. Calling his manservant Eros, he vows to follow her:

I come my Queene. Eros? Stay
for me,
Where Soules do couch on Flowers, wee’l hand in hand,
And with our sprightly Port make the Ghostes gaze:
Dido, and her Aeneas shall want Troopes,
And all the haunt be ours. (IV.xiv.50-54)

Antony's fancy that the legend of his and Cleopatra's passion will eclipse Virgil's ultimate proof of the incompatibility of love and imperial duty shows Shakespeare in the act of unwriting the certainties of epic.40 Dido, that other African mother of empire, who committed suicide out of the forlorn realization that her love could find no lasting place in Aeneas' dynastic heart, will be superseded by Cleopatra, whose death for love will compel admiration even among the shades in the underworld, and whose sacrifice will be rewarded with her married lover's eternal devotion. In this way, Antony and Cleopatra, more perhaps than any of the other Renaissance texts of African queens, allows room for contradiction of the masculine and white verities these texts reproduce. This Cleopatra's Roman lover is led by his love for her into a denial of the power of one of Rome's founding legends and all its burden of sexual fear; in an allusion as offhand as Cleopatra's explanation of her dark skin, he will refuse as well the foundational significance of racialized cultural conflict to the construction of a recognizably Roman identity.


  1. I cite the New Variorum of Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. Spevack, M. Steppat, and M. Munkelt, (New York, 1990); here, I.v.27-29. All subsequent references will be provided parenthetically in the text.

  2. However, note also this Cleopatra's reference to the ‘blewest veines’ (II.v.29) in the hand she offers the messenger who brings her news of Antony's marriage to kiss. This imprecision about skin color and racial identity is common in Renaissance texts, as several observers have noted, so that characters who are supposed to be black often refer to themselves as ‘Indians’, for example. In this play, the meanings of race are further complicated by the etymology of the word ‘gypsy’ believed to have derived from ‘Egyptian’; Philo goes on here to refer contemptuously to how Antony's great ‘Captaines heart’ has now become merely ‘the Bellowes and the Fan / To coole a Gypsies Lust’ (I.i.8, 9-10). The institutionalization of the slave trade in the mid-seventeenth century stabilized and narrowed notions of race around skin color to a far greater degree than is always observable earlier in the Renaissance.

  3. The Common Liar: An Essay on ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (New Haven, 1973), pp. 184-188. All subsequent references will be provided parenthetically in the text.

  4. Michael Neill in the Oxford Antony and Cleopatra (Oxford, 1994), p. 87. All subsequent references will be provided in the text.

  5. Linda T. Fitz, ‘Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism’, SQ 28 (1977), 297-316, traces the place of prejudiced and reductive attitudes toward women and gender in the modern history of the play's reception. Following Jonathan Dollimore's influential argument in Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Chicago, 1984) that the sexual bond between Antony and Cleopatra ‘is rooted in a fantasy transfer of power from the public to the private sphere’, (216) that the play's apparent great binaries are actually ideological effects of the power relations in whose terms the lovers define themselves and their destiny, most recent critics resist reading gender in the play in firmly oppositional or absolute terms. See, for example, Jonathan Gil Harris, ‘“Narcissus in thy face”: Roman Desire and the Difference it Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra,SQ 44 (1994), 408-425; Clare Kinney, ‘The Queen's Two Bodies and the Divided Emperor: Some Problems of Identity in Antony and Cleopatra’, in Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty Travitsky (eds), The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon (Amherst, 1990), pp. 177-186; and Jyotsna Singh, ‘Renaissance Antitheatricality, Antifeminism, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra’, Renaissance Drama. n.s. 20 (1989), 99-121.

  6. While I don’t particularly care whether the historical Cleopatra was ‘white’ or ‘black’ and note the growing consensus among biologists and ethnographers that ‘race’ is not a scientifically useful term, I do want to draw attention to what may be forcibly excluded from an understanding of Antony and Cleopatra by the refusal to explore the textuality of race in stories about the two of them. Other critics interested in the roles of racial ideologies in the Cleopatra traditions include John Henrik Clarke, ‘African Warrior Queens’, in Ivan Van Sertima (ed.), Black Women in Antiquity (New Brunswick, 1984), who calls the unexamined assumption that Cleopatra was white a prime example of ‘the emergence of the doctrine of white superiority’, pp. 126-127. Mary Nyquist's fascinating ‘“Profuse, Proud Cleopatra”: “Barbarism” and Female Rule in Early Modern English Republicanism’, Women's Studies 24 (1994), 85-87, argues the operation of early modern processes of ‘orientalization and domestication’ (85) in representations of Cleopatra. Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Oxford, 1989) is probably the most theoretically sophisticated discussion of the work of race in the gendering of Renaissance drama; see especially pp. 42-45 on the ‘historical dependency between patriarchalism and racism’ (45), and 124-127 on the reduction of ‘Cleopatra's “infinite variety” to both patriarchal and racist stereotypes’ (127).

  7. Edward Said, ‘Orientalism Reconsidered’, in Francis Barker et al. (eds), Literature, Politics and Theory (London, 1986), 225. Also see Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), and Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition Through Tragedy (Oxford, 1989). On orientalism in Antony and Cleopatra, see John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge, 1994), esp. pp. 112-123; M. P. Charlesworth, ‘The Fear of the Orient in the Roman Empire’, Cambridge Historical Journal 2.1 (1926), 1-16; and an unpublished paper by B. A. Kachur, ‘Shakespeare and Orientalism on the Edwardian Stage’, esp. 2-13 (Seminar on Nineteenth-Century Shakespeare, Shakespeare Association of America, 1994).

  8. ‘Acting Black: Othello, Othello Burlesques, and the Performance of Blackness’, Theatre Journal 46 (1994), 231-249. Much of this paper's argument about the burlesques' treatment of miscegenous sexuality builds on Neill's observations in ‘Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello’, SQ 40 (1989), 383-412.

  9. The history of Rome's conflicts in Africa—the three Punic wars and its absorption of Egypt into the empire—as well as the founding of Rome itself are marked by fateful encounters between Roman heroes and foreign noblewomen. These women include Sophonisba, niece of the Carthaginian general Hannibal who opposed Roman legions under the leadership of Scipio Africanus in the second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) and whose marriage to the Romans' client prince Massanissa eventually forced her suicide; Dido, the queen of Carthage whose tragic love for Aeneas conflicted with his epic destiny to found a new Troy to the west of the old; and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.

  10. Lynda Boose, ‘“The Getting of a Lawful Race”: Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman’, in Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (eds), Women, ‘Race’, and Writing in the Early Modern Period (London, 1994), esp. pp. 47-49; and two papers by Kim F. Hall, ‘Sexual Politics and Cultural Identity in The Masque of Blackness’, Janelle Reinelt and Sue-Ellen Case (eds), The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Politics (Iowa City, 1991), pp. 3-18, and ‘Rethinking Difference: The Politics of Race in Shakespeare’, presented at the Shakespeare Association of America, 1992. Also see an unpublished paper by Wendy Wall, ‘“Dark’ning Thy Pow’r to Lend Base Subjects Light”: Writing and Race in Early Modern England’. Peter Erickson, ‘Representations of Blacks and Blackness in the Renaissance’, Criticism 35 (1993), 506-515, notes that in nonreligious Renaissance paintings, it is difficult to ‘read’ the spatial arrangement of black figures ‘because they appear less hierarchically fixed, more capable of multiple scenarios’ (506). Bell hooks continues this critique of representations of black people, especially black women, in a contemporary context in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, 1992).

  11. In an apparent contradiction on the significance of Cleopatra's race similar to Neill's, Adelman believes that it doesn’t particularly matter what exactly Shakespeare meant to suggest by having Cleopatra call herself ‘blacke’, but that her nonwhite skin is meant to contribute to the creation of a sense of her ‘ancient and mysterious sexuality’ (188); while her sexuality would presumably be represented differently if she were white, Adelman also seems too hasty to refuse to ask what it might mean if Cleopatra and her sexuality were constructed as black. On early-modern links between sexuality, gender, and territoriality, see Louis Montrose, ‘The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery’, Representations 33 (1991), 1-41. Margaret Ferguson has discussed how what she terms the ‘erotics of imperialism’ affect the treatments of racial and gender confrontation in the period in ‘Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko’, Women's Studies 19 (1991), 159-181, and ‘Color it Black: English Fantasies of Transgressive Masculine Desire in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Behn's Abdelazar’ (Shakespeare Association of America, 1994). Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (New York, 1987), argues that travel narratives link the Petrarchan motif of the blazon, ‘the tradition of opening the “bosom of nature” to view, and the language of the feminized new land, opened to its developer’ (142). Petrarchan style is important here, of course, because of its descriptive language of ‘black’ and ‘white’ as a way of discussing and evaluating the effects of feminine beauty.

  12. Besides Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, see the essays collected in Women, ‘Race’, and Writing in the Early Modern Period and in special issues of Renaissance Drama 22 (1992), on the topic ‘Renaissance Drama in an Age of Colonization’ and Theatre Journal 46 (1994), ‘Early Modern Reenactments’; Kim F. Hall, ‘Acknowledging Things of Darkness: Race, Gender, and Power in Early Modern England’, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1990; Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (London, 1965); Antony Barthelemy, Black Face: Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge, 1987); and Jack D’Amico, The Moor in England Renaissance Drama (Tampa, 1991).

  13. See, for one example, George Best's A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie, For the Finding of a Passage to Cathaya (London, 1578), which traced Africans' blackness to ‘some naturall infection of the first inhabitants of that Countrey’, (30) a moral stain he roots in the decision of Noah's son Cham to have sexual intercourse with his wife while confined in the Ark against an express prohibition in the hopes of fathering a child who would become heir to the new world revealed after the Flood.

  14. Gary Miles, ‘How Roman Are Shakespeare's “Romans”?’, SQ 40 (1989), esp. 261-270, is an important account of how the self-image of Roman politicians differed under republican and imperial regimes. Miles argues that as the empire grew, so too did the prizes to be won by contenders for power and the steps they were willing to take to secure that power: ‘A new language and vocabulary had to be found by which to communicate the stature of the new breed of aristocratic statesman. The Romans found this new vocabulary in the Greek-speaking eastern Mediterreanean with its long history of royal dynasties’, including the Ptolemies of Egypt (261). On the clashes between Egyptian hellenism and the high Roman style see also Robert S. Bianchi, ‘Ptolemaic Egypt and Rome: An Overview’, in Cleopatra's Egypt: Age of the Ptolemies (The Brooklyn Museum, 1988), pp. 13-20. Bianchi notes the split within Egyptian culture between the ruling Ptolemaic court's hellenistic influence and the pharaonic culture of the Egyptian people. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, 2 vols. (New Brunswick, 1987) further argues the influence of subsaharan African civilizations on that of Egypt, vol. 1, 240-243.

  15. Here, I depart from Gillies' conclusions in Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. While Gillies is highly aware of the degree to which ancient accounts of geography color Renaissance versions of nationality and culture, he is silent on the ways in which racial identity, in the broad senses I argue above, also figures in these versions. For him, for example, Antony and Cleopatra is a play whose ‘ancient construction’ of what he calls the ‘exotic’ (p. 102) primarily exists in its representation of Antony as a kind of moral (as well as geographical) adventurer; ‘[e]xoticism is hardly the reigning theme’ here (p. 112). I would argue instead that perceptions of Cleopatra's ‘exotic’ stature—her identity as a queen of Egypt who conducts herself according to distinctly unRoman sexual, political, and cultural standards—dominate the play.

  16. Thabridgment of the histories of Trogus Pompeius, Collected and wrytten in the Laten tonge, by the famous historiographer Justine, and translated into English by Arthur Goldyng (London, 1564): here, fol. 87. Justin's work, as Goldyng's title suggests, is actually a digest of Trogus; Justin's interest in highlighting important moments from Greek culture would have smoothly recommended itself to the synthesizing impulses of English classicism. All subsequent references will be provided parenthetically in the text. Richard Waswo, ‘The History that Literature Makes’, NLH 19 (1988), 541-564, and Patricia Parker, ‘Romance and Empire: Anachronistic Cymbeline’, in George M. Logan and Gordon Teskey (eds), Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance (Ithaca, 1989), pp. 189-207, discuss the importance of the Matter of Troy and the Matter of Rome in English Renaissance culture.

  17. In ‘Managing the Barbarian: The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage’, Renaissance Drama n.s. 23 (1992), 165-188.

  18. Comparing the rape of the Sabine women by Romulus' followers to the abduction of the Cypriots' daughters, Stephen Orgel (ed.), The Tempest (Oxford, 1987), alludes to an ‘imperial mythology, in which rape is essential to the foundation of empire’ (41).

  19. In ‘“This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”: The Tempest and The Discourse of Colonialism’, in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Ithaca, 1985), pp. 48-71.

  20. On the importance of lineage and family to pre-imperial Romans' self-definition, see Miles, ‘How Roman Are Shakespeare's “Romans”?’, 260.

  21. I cite Susanne Woods (ed.), The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer:Salve Deus Rex Judoeæorum,’ (New York, 1993), marginal gloss p. 59; lines 213-216.

  22. I cite the reprint of Pembroke's Antonius included in the New Variorum of Antony and Cleopatra; here, lines 437-441, 455. All subsequent references will be provided parenthetically in the text.

  23. See Kim Hall's discussion of Lanier's and Pembroke's Cleopatras in ‘“I Rather Would Wish to Be a Blackamoor”: Beauty, Race, and Rank in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania’, in Women, ‘Race’, and Writing, esp. 182-183.

  24. Tina Krontiris, Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance (London, 1992), believes that the Countess of Pembroke's pursuit of ‘safe’ genres such as translation eventually became ‘a kind of cultural trap for her, pushing her further into a conventional role’, (67) although she does not pursue the link between gender and conceptions of race I have been arguing here.

  25. On the Senecan style of the Pembroke circle's works on Cleopatra, see J. Leeds Barroll, Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (Washington, D. C., 1984), pp. 34-35; and Marilyn Williamson, Infinite Variety: Antony and Cleopatra in Renaissance Drama and Earlier Tradition (Mystic CT., 1974), pp. 132-134. Margaret McGowan, ‘The Presence of Rome in Some Plays of Robert Garnier’, in E. Freeman, H. Mason, M. O’Regan, and S. W. Taylor (eds), Myth and Its Making in the French Theatre: Studies Presented to W. D. Howarth (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 12-29, discusses Garnier's and other French classicists' perception of a special relevance in histories of Rome's civil wars to their own era of French history.

  26. Lucan's Pharsalia: Or The Civill Warres of Rome, betweene POMPEY the great, and JULIUS CAESAR. The whole tenne Bookes. Englished by Thomas May (London, 1631); here, Book 9, R4. All subsequent citations will be provided parenthetically in the text. May was obviously fascinated by the conflict between Rome and Egypt. Not only did he translate the Pharsalia, but he also wrote an original seven-book continuation of the epic which took readers up to Caesar's assassination, and a play, The Tragedy of Cleopatra Queene of Ægypt (acted 1626, printed 1639), which explored Cleopatra's suicide.

  27. On parallels between the legends of Cleopatra and of Elizabeth I, see Keith Rinehart, ‘Shakespeare's Cleopatra and England's Elizabeth’, SQ 23 (1972), 81-86, and Theodora Jankowski, ‘“As I am Egypt's Queen”: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and the Female Body Politic’, Assays 5 (1989), 91-110.

  28. Keith Hopkins, ‘Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 22 (1980), 303-354, notes the wide occurrence of sibling marriage in pre-Roman Egypt and suggests that the practice only came to an end ‘under the double impact of Roman law and Christianity’ (354), some years after the events dramatized in Antony and Cleopatra.

  29. See Paul Brown, ‘“This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”’, 48-54.

  30. See, for example, Michael Lloyd, ‘Cleopatra as Isis’, Shakespeare Survey 12 (1959), 88-94; Barbara J. Bono, Literary Transvaluation: From Vergilian Epic to Shakespearean Tragicomedy (Berkeley, 1984), pp. 191-213; Adelman, Common Liar, pp. 66-67; and Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, pp. 124-130.

  31. The Philosophy Commonly Called The Morals written by the learned philosopher Plutarch of Chæronea; tr. out of Greek into English, and conferred with the Latine translations and the French, by Philemon Holland, 2nd ed. (London, 1657); here, p. 1053. All subsequent citations will be provided parenthetically in the text.

  32. Jan Quaegebeur, ‘Cleopatra VII and the Cults of the Ptolemaic Queens’, in Cleopatra's Egypt, pp. 41-53, and Mary Hamer, Signs of Cleopatra: History, Politics, Representation (London, 1993), pp. 10-16, discuss the ways in which the queens of Cleopatra's line publicly represented themselves as divine. My thinking here on the links between female sexuality, territory and sovereignty was originally stimulated by Sondra Delaney, who shared with me her photographs of the temple of Hathor (a divinity often identified with Isis) at Dendera.

  33. According to Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony, it was his custom to emphasize his family's claim of descent from ‘one Anton, the sonne of Hercules’, by trying to dress as this eastern god was frequently represented, with ‘his cassocke gyrt downe lowe uppon his hippes, with a great sword hanging by his side’ (New Variorum, 399). See Gillies, Shakespeare's Geography of Difference, pp. 112-118, and Linda McJannet, ‘Antony and Alexander: Imperial Politics in Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Some Modern Historical Texts’, College Literature 20 (1993), 1-18, for more on Antony's hellenism; and Cynthia Marshall, ‘Man of Steel Done Got the Blues: Melancholic Subversion of Presence in Antony and Cleopatra’, SQ 44 (1993), 385-408, on the refusal or incapacity of Shakespeare's Antony to fill a proper Roman role.

  34. Abraham Fraunce, The Third part of the Countess of Pembroke's Ivychurch: Entituled, Amintas Dale (London, 1592; rpt. New York, 1976), 36. The Phaeton-Apollo story appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book I.

  35. George Sandys, Ovid's Metamorphoses English’d (Oxford, 1622), p. 66, p. 67.

  36. Alexander Ross, Mystagogus Poeticus, Or The Muses Interpreter, ed. John R. Glenn (London, 1647; rpt. New York, 1987), p. 493.

  37. Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony reports that after the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, their various children were disposed of according to Roman imperial design. His eldest son by his first wife Fulvia was executed by Octavius, perhaps to forestall the power of filial identification among the Romans; Octavia raised his children by Cleopatra and married their eldest daughter to the king of Mauretania. Octavius married his daughter to Octavia's son Marcellus by her first marriage; Octavia married one of her daughters to Caesar's most trusted lieutenant, Agrippa, and then, after Marcellus's death, persuaded him that his own daughter should be remarried to Agrippa, setting her own daughter aside in order to do so. Preserving the bloodline of her birth family, the Octavians, was obviously of highest priority to Antony's widow.

  38. The term ‘homosocial’ derives from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York, 1985); her discussion, pp. 32-36, of the triangulation of desire in Shakespeare's sonnets is relevant to the familial politics through which Octavius and Antony attempt to structure their relation: ‘The Sonnets present a male-male love that … is set firmly within a structure of institutionalized social relations that are carried out through women: marriage, name, family, loyalty to progenitors and to posterity’ (35). Jonathan Gil Harris, ‘“Narcissus in thy face”’, also notes the relevance of Sedgwick to Octavius and Antony's situation, 419-420.

  39. At I.ii.80-81; I.iv.5-7; and II.v.21-23, characters confuse Cleopatra with Antony or with other men. Holland's translation of ‘Of Isis and Osiris’ provides some discussion of this fluid gendering of the Egyptian queen: Egyptian authorities ‘name the Moon, mother of the world; saying, that she is a double nature, male and female: female, in that she doth conceive and is replenished by the Sun: and male, in this regard that she sendeth forth and sprinkleth in the air, the seeds and principles of generation’ (1061).

  40. See Mihoko Suzuki, Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference, and the Epic (Ithaca, 1989), 258-263.

Jyotsna G. Singh (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Caliban Versus Miranda: Race and Gender Conflicts in Postcolonial Rewritings of The Tempest,” in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 191-209.

[In the following essay, Singh studies postcolonial readings of The Tempest, which emphasize the role of Caliban as a prototype of the modern revolutionary due to his engagement in a power struggle with Prospero.]


I cannot read The Tempest without recalling the adventures of those voyages reported in Hakluyt; and when I remember the voyages and the particular period in African history, I see The Tempest against the background of England's experimentation in colonisation … The Tempest was also prophetic of a political future which is our present. Moreover, the circumstances of my life, both as colonial and exiled descendant of Caliban in the twentieth century is an example of that prophecy.1

There is just one world in which the oppressors and oppressed struggle, one world in which, sooner than later, the oppressed will be victorious. Our [Latin] America is bringing its own nuances to this struggle, this victory. The tempest has not subsided. But The Tempest's shipwrecked sailors, Crusoe and Gulliver, can be seen, rising out of the waters, from terra firma. There, not only Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban, Don Quixote, Friday and Faust await them, but … halfway between history and dream—Marx and Lenin, Bolivar and Marti, Sandino and Che Guevara.2

Since Caliban first appeared on the stage in Shakespeare's The Tempest in 1611, he has been theatrically reincarnated in many different forms. Most recently, Prospero's “misshapen knave” and “demi-devil” has been transformed into a third world revolutionary. Revisionary histories of colonialism—especially since the 1960s—frequently evoke the figure of Caliban as a symbol of resistance to colonial regimes in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. These revisions interrogate the so-called “discovery” of the Americas to trace a history of the Caliban myth in the early encounters between the European colonizers and natives. Crucially, they challenge the veracity of Columbus' account of “cannibals” in his diary, suggesting that the term “cannibal”—for which Caliban is an anagram—is itself a deformation of the name Carib, an Indian warrior tribe opposed to the Europeans or a variant of another tribal name, Kanibna. Furthermore, they argue that while there is limited and conflicting evidence backing Columbus' association of caribs/cannibals with people who eat human flesh, the image of the cannibal easily elided with Shakespeare's Caliban, ideologically holding in place the European distinction between their own “civilized” selves and the “savage” others they encountered in the New World.3 Cheyfitz lays down the boundaries of this revisionary reading as follows:

Whatever the actual linguistic case may be, however, we have cause to wonder, as Columbus himself apparently did from time to time, at Columbus' association of the cannibals with eating human flesh. He did not have any empirical evidence, and his assertion that the Arawaks themselves told him is contradicted by Columbus' own admission that neither the Indians nor the Europeans knew each other's language. If we try to imagine the use of gestures in this case, we have not gotten around the problem of translation, but only embedded ourselves more deeply in it … [however] after the association Columbus elaborated in his journal, cannibal … [became] a part of a diverse arsenal of rhetorical weapons used to distinguish what they conceive of their “civilized” selves from certain “savage” others, principally Native Americans and Africans.4

Such contemporary interrogations of the so-called originary moment of European colonialism in Columbus' “discovery” of the Americas have stirred considerable interest in earlier, native revisions of colonial history. Today, as we question Prospero's heroic qualities within the providential code that had previously designated the play a pastoral romance, we can also recognize why Caribbean and Latin American writers, in the wake of decolonization in the 1960s, imaginatively identify with Caliban in their rewritings of Shakespeare's play. Roberto Fernandez Retamar recalls a history of a variety of Latin American responses to The Tempest through this century—some of which valorize Ariel as a native intellectual—and argues that new readings from a genuinely non-European perspective were only enabled by the gradual emergence of “third world” nations.5 Thus, writing in 1971, Retamar declares

Our symbol then is not Ariel … but rather Caliban. This is something that we, the mestizo inhabitants of these same isles where Caliban lived, see with particular clarity: Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, enslaved Caliban, and taught him his language to make himself understood. What can Caliban do but use that same language—today he has no other—to curse him … I know no other metaphor more expressive of our cultural situation, of our reality … what is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?6

These identifications with Caliban, and an accompanying unease about his alien language, typify numerous Latin American and Caribbean responses, especially in their articulations of Caliban's revolutionary potential against Prospero's linguistic authority. The Barbadian writer George Lamming, while assuming his people's identification with Caliban, often returns to the impasse of the colonizer's language in his pioneering essay of 1960:

Prospero has given Caliban language: with all its unstated history of consequences, an unknown history of future intentions. This gift of language meant not only English, in particular, but speech and concept as a way, a method, a necessary avenue towards areas of the self which could not be reached any other way … Prospero lives in the absolute certainty that Language, which is his gift to Caliban, is the very prison in which Caliban's achievements must be realized and restricted.7

Writing some years later, the Martinique writer and founder of the Negritude movement, Aimé Césaire, is more unequivocal in his play, A Tempest, casting Caliban as a successful revolutionary who persistently repudiates Prospero's (European) version of history:

caliban: … I am telling you [Prospero] … I won’t answer to the name Caliban … Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen. You talk about history … well, that’s history, and everyone knows it! … Uhuru.8

These and other such third world identifications with Caliban have clearly occasioned a paradigm shift among Western audiences and critics who in the past “tended to listen exclusively to Prospero's voice; [who] after all … speaks their language.”9 And in his stage manifestations too, Caliban has come a long way from appearing as the eighteenth-century primitive or the nineteenth-century Darwinian “missing link” to be accepted as a colonial subject or an embodiment of any oppressed group.10 Undoubtedly, these anti-colonialist rewritings of Shakespeare's The Tempest question the play's seemingly aesthetic concerns, crucially relocating it within a revisionist history of the “discovery” of the Americas and the struggles for decolonization in this region. However, while these historicizations of Prospero's mistreatment of Caliban make visible the colonial contexts of Shakespeare's play, they often simply signal a reversal of the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed, typically demonstrated by Césaire in A Tempest when he depicts the relation between Prospero and Caliban as an endless and inevitable Hegelian struggle between the master and slave. Despite leaving open the possibility of a constant negotiation of power between the two men in alternating roles, the play does little to question the inevitability of hierarchical structures.

Therefore, ironically, Prospero refuses to return to Europe at the end of Césaire's play. He threatens a freed and defiant Caliban: “I will answer your violence with violence,” but concludes almost tamely: “Well Caliban, old fellow, it’s just us two now, here on the island … only you and me,” while Caliban shouts: “Freedom Hi-Day, Freedom Hi-Day.”11 Finally, in his anti-colonial version of Shakespeare's play, Césaire leaves Prospero and Caliban at an impasse: locked in a continual, potentially violent struggle while sharing the otherwise uninhabited island.

In Lamming's reading of The Tempest, the writer also frequently lapses into psychologizing universals when defining the Prospero/Caliban polarity (in which Miranda has a peripheral role):

[According to Lamming, while] Caliban is [Prospero's] convert, colonised by language, and excluded by language … Prospero is afraid of Caliban. He is afraid because he knows that his encounter with Caliban is largely his encounter with himself. The gift [of language] is a contract from which neither participant is allowed to withdraw … [yet] Caliban is a child of Nature … [and] Miranda is the innocent half of Caliban.12

In such formulations, Prospero is the dominant force in a natural psychic struggle between Self and Other, namely, between Prospero and Caliban—and Miranda as the object of desire functions to define and keep this rivalry alive.

Lamming and Césaire exemplify a tendency among the anti-colonial appropriations of The Tempest to reverse the roles of oppressor and oppressed. And more importantly, in doing so, they view the identities of the women—of Miranda and of the missing “native” woman, Sycorax—simply as an aspect of the Prospero/Caliban opposition rather than in terms of the complex sexual ideologies underpinning colonialism. I wish to look afresh at the relation between Miranda and Caliban, specifically at the way in which Shakespeare's play intersects with postcolonial reappraisals of it, which, I believe, do not adequately address the interactions between race, sexuality, and political struggle. At the center of my concerns lies the gendering of these postcolonial discourses of revolution in which Caliban as the prototype of a male revolutionary becomes a convenient, homogenizing symbol for decolonization. What these writers do not acknowledge is that their focus on Caliban “generates a self-conscious, self-celebrating male paradigm” that often posits a utopia in which women are marginalized or missing.13 Retamar imagines such a male utopia in his vision of a tempest, “halfway between history and dream,” which will unify the former oppressors and oppressed: Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel figure alongside Friday, Don Quixote, Marti, and Guevara, among others, but Miranda (as well as her dead mother) and Sycorax are missing.14

Postcolonial theorists (both in Western and non-Western locations) have frequently critiqued narratives of “discovery” for the way in which they gender “the New World as feminine, [while] sexualizing … its exploration, conquest, and settlement.”15 Some have also traced a history of this feminization of the various non-European cultures, whereby they exude a “full blown … sensuality” of a “sweet dream” in which the West had been wallowing for more than four centuries.”16 From these examples it is evident that critics resisting colonialism have been quick to note how gender is crucial in mapping the signification of power relations in the West—especially in relation to its native others. It is surprising, however, that in their rewritings of The Tempest, non-Western writers like Lamming, Césaire, and Fanon have created liberationist, third world narratives oddly oblivious to the dissonances between race and gender struggles. Thus, ironically, their anti-colonial discourse produces the liberated “Black Man” via the erasure of female subjectivity. For instance, they acknowledge Miranda, but only as the property of the European masters, and therefore, in this eyes, a desired object to be usurped and claimed in the service of resistance. It is Fanon's alienated black male who best expresses this contradiction in the agenda of decolonization, when he declares: “I marry white culture, white beauty, white whiteness. When my restless hands caress those white breasts, they grasp white civilization and dignity and make them mine.”17 Such assertive, and potentially forcible, claims on the European woman are never questioned by Fanon or others, while the possibility of a fruitful partnership with a native woman—a native mate for Caliban—is never given serious consideration.

In The Pleasures of Exile, for instance, “resistance and liberation are an exclusively male enterprise.”18 Lamming attempts to understand the relation between Miranda and Caliban who, in his version, share “innocence and incredulity” but differ in “their degree of being.”19 Ultimately, however, he privileges “Caliban's history …[which] belongs to the future.”20 Miranda, in contrast, is made to depend on her father's view of history and await her future within a patriarchal lineage, whereby “the magic of birth will sail [her], young, beautiful, and a virgin, into the arms of the King's only son.”21 Furthermore, and more crucially, as Paquet mentions in her foreword, “[finally] like Melville's Ishmael, Caliban is left alone on the island [without the promise of a mate]” and “Sycorax, as a symbol of a landscape and a changing human situation, is a memory, an absence, and a silence … [as] Lamming consciously postpones consideration of Sycorax and Miranda's mother as contributing subjects of Caribbean cultural history.”22

Aimé Césaire's play, A Tempest (which I will discuss at length later), also celebrates Caliban's linguistic and political appropriations of Prospero's power, but once again, without radically altering the terms of a patriarchal power struggle in which the woman's presence is incidental or abstract: namely to perpetuate her father's noble lineage by marrying Ferdinand, the ruler of Naples. And Caliban's mother, the “native” Sycorax, figures in the play as a symbolic Earth Mother embodied in the natural elements of the island. As a result, while the experience of the play foregrounds a seemingly gender-neutral struggle between master and slave, it is, in effect, predicated on the marginalization of the female figures. Before analyzing the gender politics of Césaire's play any further, I would like to examine the discourse of sexuality in Shakespeare's The Tempest and explore how it offers the crucial nexus for Prospero's colonial authority. An analogy for Prospero's imposition of cultural and political organization on the sexuality of his subjects—Miranda, Caliban, and to a lesser extent, Ferdinand—can be found in the structure of the exchange of women as gifts in earlier, “primitive” societies—a structure which served as an idiom for both kinship and competition among men. In this I hope to show that while Césaire rewrites Shakespeare's play as a third world manifesto of decolonization, he leaves intact the intractable system of gender categories that are the centerpiece of Prospero's ostensibly benevolent mastery.


Why speaks my father so urgently? This
Is the third man that e’er I saw; the first
That e’er I sighed for …
O, if a virgin
And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you the
Queen of Naples.(23)

(Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1.ii.445-49)

On the occasion of Ferdinand and Miranda's first meeting, arranged and controlled by Prospero, in act I, scene ii of Shakespeare's play, a curious and telling exchange takes place between the three of them. Miranda articulates her desire for Ferdinand by distinguishing him from the other two men she has known: her father and Caliban. Here, Miranda is unaware of her father's apparently “magical” control of this moment, even as she articulates her desire as a personalized, autonomous experience of sighs and longings. Ferdinand, however, does not look to his heart to understand his attraction for her; instead, he quickly reveals a connection between his sexual desire and the requirements of a patriarchal lineage: “if a virgin,” he asks her, “I’ll make you / The Queen of Naples.” Prospero, the presiding deity, controls their feelings as he finds his power slipping—“this swift business / I must uneasy make” (I.ii.451-52)—while cautioning Miranda against her limited judgment: “Thou think'st there is no more such shapes as he, / Having seen but him and Caliban. Foolish wench! / To th’ most of men this is a Caliban, / And they to him are angels” (I.ii. 479-82).

In eliding Caliban and Ferdinand in vague comparison to “most of men”—while rhetorically suggesting an identity and difference between them—Prospero points out how he uses Caliban as the less-than-human other in order to define gender (and racial) identity in conveniently elusive terms of what it is not. In this gesture, Prospero unwittingly reveals that not only does he fear Caliban's potential for miscegenation with Miranda, but that every man who desires his daughter is potentially a Caliban, unless that desire can be channeled to fulfill the demands of an aristocratic lineage.

While noting the dynamics of Prospero's fatherhood, critics often have observed the play's ambivalence toward motherhood. For instance, Coppèlia Kahn notes that “[Prospero's] only mention of his wife is highly ambivalent, at once commending and questioning her chastity before his daughter: ‘Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou wast my daughter (I.ii.56-57).’”24 David Sundelson reiterates this point by suggesting that the “reverence for father Prospero does not extend to mothers. Whatever ambivalence toward them is hidden in Prospero's tale of expulsion, the one mother in the play is unmistakably demonic: Sycorax.”25 She is a “foul witch” (I.ii.263), a “damned witch … banished for mischiefs manifold, sorceries terrible / To enter human hearing” (I.ii.264-65). Sundelson then argues, “This demon mother's rage is ‘unmitigable’ (I.ii.276); only a father could end the torture.”26 Stephen Orgel also persuasively reads the effects of Prospero's ambivalence toward wives/mothers: “The absent presence of the wife and mother in the play constitutes a space that is filled by Prospero's creation of surrogates and a ghostly family: the witch Sycorax and her monster child Caliban … the good child/wife Miranda … ”27

Caliban as the offspring of this “demon” mother serves appropriately as an other. Thus, Prospero's (and the play's) view of Caliban as a potential rapist illustrates how the discourse of sexuality underpins colonial authority. That Prospero assumes authority in terms typical of colonialist discourse is recognized by most postcolonial critics. As one critic states, “Colonialist discourse does not simply announce a triumph for civility, it must continually produce it [through a struggle with rather than an assimilation of its others].”28 Hence, interpellated within Prospero's narrative of sexual and racial control, the identities of both Caliban and Miranda must constantly be produced in terms of sexual struggle in which, as Prospero's subjects, their sexuality comes under constant surveillance, even as one enables the repression of the other. Both race and gender conflicts come into play in this three-way dynamic, inhering within the same system of differences between colonizer and colonized, yet not without some dissonances within the systemic forces. Miranda, who knows no men (other than her father) between whom she can distinguish, responds unequivocally to Caliban's different appearance, which seems an inherent sign of his “villainy.” In II.ii. she declares to her father: “’Tis [Caliban] a villain sir, / I do not love to look on” (I.ii.309). Yet, like a typical colonizer, she also reveals her civilizing impulses toward Caliban: “I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour / One thing or another” (I.ii.353-55)—simultaneously holding out little hope of improvement for his “vile race.”

Neither Prospero nor Miranda allow Caliban an identity as a desiring subject who wishes to gain sexual access to Miranda for the legitimate aim of “peopl[ing]… This isle with Calibans” (I.ii.350-51). However, given Prospero's manipulation of Ferdinand's “wooing,” it is clear that he decides which man is to have access to his daughter. Though Miranda has a position of colonial superiority over Caliban, she nonetheless has a marginal role within a kinship system in which all the three males are bonded through their competing claims on her. According to Lévi-Strauss, Mauss, and others, one of the most striking features of this system among so-called primitive societies was the practice of giving and receiving gifts as a part of social intercourse; within this system, the gift of women was the most profound because the exchange partners thereby enacted a relationship of kinship.29 Significantly, however, gift exchange could confer upon its participants a special solidarity as well as a sense of competition and rivalry. From the perspective of some feminist anthropologists, this system had far-reaching implications for women:

If it is women who are being transacted, then it is men who give and take them who are linked, the woman being a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it. The exchange of women does not necessarily imply that women are objectified … But it does imply a distinction between gift and giver. If women are the gifts, then it is the men who are exchange partners. And it is the partners, not their presents, upon whom the reciprocal exchange confers its quasi-mystical power of social linkage … [Thus] women are given in marriage, taken in battle, exchanged for favours, sent as tribute, traded, bought, and sold.30

Several contemporary anthropologists recognize the danger of attributing a timeless universality to this concept of a kinship system. For instance, they point to the gender inflections of Lévi-Strauss' reasoning when he says that women should be exchanged as the way only of overcoming the contradiction by which the same woman is, on the one hand, the object of personal desire, and, on the other, the object of the desire of others and a means of binding others through alliance with them. Such a naturalized definition of a woman's role also, critics argue, does not account for some matrilineal, non-Western societies that neither hold proprietorial attitudes toward women nor use them as a means of social and sexual exchange. Despite these limitations of Lévi-Strauss' gendered language, the notion of the exchange of women is nonetheless useful in demonstrating, when applicable, how a specific cultural paradigm organizes and shapes female sexuality and subjectivity.31

It is apparent, then, that underlying the dynamics of Prospero's power struggle with Caliban and, to a lesser extent, with Ferdinand, over the two men's sexual claims to Prospero's daughter, lies the social grid of the kinship system. Thus, desiring Miranda makes the noble Ferdinand a suitable exchange partner for her royal father. She is to be the means whereby the royal descendents of the two men will be related by blood. Ferdinand makes apparent that this arrangement is, in effect, an exchange of Miranda's virginity (which her father must guard) for the throne of Naples. This is reinforced at the end of the play, when Ferdinand retrospectively asks his father's permission for his marriage to Miranda: “I chose her when I could not ask my father / For his advice” (v.i.190-91).

The marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda typically exemplifies the theory of reciprocity in kinship systems. Marriages are the most basic form of gift exchange, whereby the woman whom one does not take is offered up as a precious gift. Caliban, the seeming outsider among kin, nonetheless has a role within the system of gender differences underpinning gift exchanges among men. His desire for Miranda leads him to imagine a kinship with Prospero, even if it means taking her forcibly: “Would’t had been done! / Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans” (I.ii.349-51). In this scenario, Caliban not only wishes to create a blood tie with Prospero, but also to use Miranda as a means of producing male children—a population in the image of Caliban rather than of Miranda. When Prospero prevents Caliban from violating the “honour of [his] child” (I.ii.348), he in turn assumes a proprietorial control over his daughter as a sexual gift, which he will later give to the royal Ferdinand.

A central feature of the traditional kinship structure is that all levels and directions in the traffic of women, including hostile ones, are ordered by this structure. Thus, gift exchange could be an idiom of rivalry and competition and marriage itself could be highly competitive.32 In this context, while Prospero believes that Caliban exists outside of any civilized social forms, the latter is nonetheless Ferdinand's rival in desiring Miranda, and on the basis of this claim is bonded with the two other men; an acknowledgement and denial of his desire by Prospero ironically serves to legitimate Caliban's position as a rival within the structures of gift exchange. Prospero and Miranda may consider Caliban “a thing most brutish,” but from his perspective, the colonizer has withheld from him the gift of woman in order to maintain the hierarchical boundaries between them. The basis of the power struggle between Prospero and Caliban, then, is an implicit consensus about the role of woman as a gift to be exchanged.

Miranda's role as a gift is further complicated by Prospero's implicit (and European) fear of a monstrous progeny that could result from a misplaced gift exchange with a man who is racially marked as other. In Prospero's eyes the imaginary “Calibans” who could “people” the isle would connect his lineage to that of Sycorax, whom he describes as the “damned witch” whose “sorceries terrible” banished her from “Argier” (Algiers). For Prospero (and for European audience), her magic is antithetical to his supposedly beneficent Art because she embodies an aberration of nature, both in terms of her sexuality (her impregnation by an incubus) and her racial identity as a non-European. While Prospero claims to know the history of her life, his only source is Ariel, and as one critic points out, “we have no way of distinguishing the facts about Caliban and Sycorax from Prospero's invective about them.”33 Given his demonizing rhetoric, it is not surprising that a fear of miscegenation is a crucial trope that structures Prospero's “plot” of selective inclusion and exclusion in which Miranda, Ferdinand, and Caliban figure as prominent characters.

We get a fuller sense of Sycorax's demonization if we consider The Tempest's relation to the poetic geography of the Renaissance (derived from classical and medieval sources), in which European identity is frequently contrasted with images of otherness. According to John Gillies, Sycorax's mythic journey from Algiers to the New World is motivated not so much to find a new “howling wilderness” as to make one. Her adoption of “Setebos,” a New World “devil” (“my Dam's god”), evokes associations with the name of the demonized god of the “heathen” Patagonian Indians. Thus, in her role as the non-Western other in the collective European imagination, she is like “Ham, progenitor of the Caananite, the Negro and other supposedly bestial and slavish races, … an outcast from the world of men, a wanderer beyond bounds and an active promoter of the degeneracy of her ‘vile’ race.”34

Prospero's plot of a “happy end,” however, does not accommodate the figure of Claribel, who haunts the margins of The Tempest. In fact, it is telling that Shakespeare's play, unlike Prospero's script, does not resolve the contradiction between the anxiety of miscegenation from Miranda's potential union with Caliban and the political imperative for a European like Alonso to give his daughter in a marriage across racial lines. References to the forced marriage of Claribel to the King of Tunis in North Africa, which appear early in the play, strike a discordant note in the emerging racial ideology that leads European audiences to rejoice at the play's “happy” marriage at the end—a marriage that preserves the purity of European lineage in the union of Naples and Milan.

That Claribel's match deviates from the cultural norm is made evident by Sebastian when he chides Alonso “That would not bless our Europe with your daughter / But rather loose her to an African” (II.i.129-30) and reminds him that his daughter was divided by her “loathness” for the Tunisian and “obedience” toward her father. Furthermore, Gonzalo's unexplained identification between Claribel and Dido, Queen of Carthage, complicates our view of the racial and gender politics involved in the match. For instance, the fate imposed upon Alonso's reluctant daughter is the one violently resisted by Dido who chose to die rather than marry an African King, Iarbus. According to Peter Hulme, to recall Carthage “is to bring to mind several centuries of punishing wars with Italy … when presumably Claribel has been a gift to fend off a dangerous new power in the central Mediterranean.”35 The references to Dido also evoke contradictory images: that of the widow, and “a model at once of heroic fidelity to her murdered husband and the destructive potential of erotic passion.”36 Overall, while the meanings of this allusion are multiple and remain ambiguous, references to North Africa encroach upon the boundaries of the imaginary Italian states of the Renaissance that defined their culture against “barbarians” like the offspring of the Algerian Sycorax, or in another instance, the “barbarian Moor.” While images of the Tunisian queen do not intrude into Prospero's plan of social and sexual organization, they nonetheless open up an imaginary space for viewers (and readers) of the play to imagine the (impossible or repressed) possibility of miscegenation in the service of political expediency, even as the woman's subjectivity continues to be shaped by her status as a gift.

Some political, especially feminist, readings of Shakespeare's The Tempest try to open up the play to such dissonances that remain unaccommodated by the play's “happy” conclusion. One such strategy is to read an implicit affinity between Caliban and Miranda in relation to the overarching power of Prospero, whom they designate as a racist patriarch. While acknowledging that historically European women have been complicit with their men in producing the non-European man as a demonized Other and a potential rapist, they attempt to read against the grain of such polarizations. Lorrie J. Leininger's landmark essay, despite its essentialism, is useful in exploring a relationship between Miranda and Caliban, not in sexual terms, but in the context of a mutual recognition of the possibilities of resistance.37 Thus, Leininger creates an imaginary riposte by Miranda to her father in which she both reveals and disrupts colonial hierarchy as well as the kinship system: “My father is no God-figure. No one is a God-father” (p. 291). Calling for respect for Caliban's non-European ancestry, she also refuses to be used as a means of his oppression:

… men are reminded of Indians when they first see Caliban; he might be African, his mother having been transported from Algiers … I will not be used as the excuse of his enslavement … I need to join forces with Caliban—with all those who are exploited …38

Furthermore, Leininger's Miranda repudiates the value placed on her “virginity” both by the kinship system—as a gift exchanged or withheld—and by the colonial institutions based on the “protection” of European women: “I cannot give assent to an ethical scheme that locates all virtue symbolically in one part of my anatomy. My virginity has little to do with the forces that will lead to a good harvest or to greater social justice.”39 Such insights offered by feminist revisions of The Tempest make visible the structural contradictions in Miranda's subject-position as “the sexual object of both the Anglo-American male and the native other.”40 And while Miranda ultimately aligns herself to the colonizing father and husband, the play and Leininger also gesture toward an alliance, however problematic, in a childhood “prehistory” when Miranda taught Caliban language, or in a utopian, egalitarian future.

Such feminist possibilities and insights rarely figure in third world, postcolonial versions of the play. A call for decolonization and revolution in a play such as Aimé Césaire's A Tempest ironically shows that race and gender struggles occur in antithetical, rather than cooperative relationships. The play enacts a breakdown of colonial hierarchy, but leaves intact the system of kinship between men.


Good God, you tried to rape my daughter!
Rape! Rape! Listen you old goat, you’re the one that put those
dirty thoughts in my head. Let me tell you something: I couldn’t care
less about your daughter, or about your cave for that matter.(41)

Aimé Césaire's Caliban is clearly the protagonist of A Tempest. In this telling exchange between him and Prospero, he strongly repudiates the identity of a rapist that he claims is produced by his master. Caliban's almost perfunctory dismissal of any possibility of sexually desiring Miranda is put to question in II.i by her description of that “awful Caliban who keeps pursuing me and calling out my name in his stupid dreams” (p. 35). Except for these two moments that leave a lingering sense of ambivalence, the play largely leaves unexplored the issue of power and sexuality as it concerns the relationship between Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban. The latter moment, in effect, seems to deny his identity as a desiring subject, shrugging off “dirty thoughts” not of his own making to become a single-minded prototype of a third world revolutionary. Does his rejection of Miranda as a sexual prize signal a “brave new world” in which the patriarchal kinship bonds between men are dissolved?

Before responding to this rhetorical question, let me first establish A Tempest's dramatic and political credentials. First published in French in the wake of decolonization in 1969, it revised the history of the Caribbean. Calling for a troupe of black actors performing their own version of Shakespeare's play, it was initially produced in Africa, The Middle East, and the Caribbean, as well as in France. It was translated into English by Richard Miller in 1985 and was introduced to New York audiences in a successful, though politically restrained, production in 1991. The spirit of the play derives from the Negritude movement, of which Césaire was one of the founders, with its aim being to reverse the political and linguistic oppression of blacks within colonialism.

Set in a colony—a prototype of a Caribbean or African setting—in the throes of resistance and unrest, the play initially focuses on Caliban's verbal attacks on Prospero's control over language and representation. Here Césaire is clearly sensitive to the way in which the name Caliban/cannibal appears in Shakespeare's play—and in colonial history—“through an imperial and colonial act of translation.”42 Thus, Césaire has Caliban declare his independence in Swahili, “Uhuru!” To which Prospero mutters, “Mumbling your native language again! I’ve already told you, I don’t like it” (p. 11). He wants his native subject to “at least thank (me) for having taught you to speak at all. You, a savage … a dumb animal, a beast I educated, trained, dragged up from the Bestiality that still clings to you” (p. 11). Césaire's Prospero is the familiar proponent of the “civilizing mission”; thus, Caliban's rebellion is rightly aimed at Prospero's power of “naming” when he declares, “I don’t want to be called Caliban any longer … Caliban isn’t my name” (p. 15).

Accompanying Caliban's disruptions to the colonizer's language are intimations of an actual resistance movement (as Prospero tells Ariel in III.iii: “Caliban is alive, he is plotting, he is getting a guerilla force” [p. 50]), as well as of an impending black independence in Ariel's concluding resolve to sing “notes so sweet that the last / will give rise to a yearning / in the heart of the most forgetful slaves / yearning for freedom … and the lightened agave will straighten [into] / a solemn flag” (p. 60). Prior to his articulation of this “unsettling agenda,” Ariel, who is labeled a “Mulatto,” plays the historical part of those mixed races, often in the middle of the colonial hierarchy, more able to accept their somewhat limited oppression. Ariel declares that he and Caliban are “Brothers in suffering and slavery … and in hope as well … [but] have different methods” (p. 20); yet Ariel's vision of brotherhood includes Prospero, and for him any fight of freedom is for his master too—“so that Prospero can acquire a conscience” (p. 22).

The play does not end with an unequivocal victory leading to the expulsion of the colonizer. Rather, it posits a Hegelian dialectic in which Prospero and Caliban remain on the island, with Prospero declaring his power as well as a curious, almost natural bond. “Well Caliban, old fellow, it’s just us two now, here on the island” (p. 68). Given this ending, A Tempest is commonly staged as a “political comedy” with a humorous rhetorical play on language.43 However, one cannot overlook the political message of the play: to promote “black consciousness” and rewrite the script of colonial history. At least imaginatively, if not literally, the play creates a different kind of “brave new world” in which the struggle for political and cultural independence is in process.

Undoubtedly, Césaire's postcolonial vision (incorporating the philosophy of Negritude) challenges the categories of representation defining the non-European races as inferior and in need of civilization. But while it celebrates a revolution of brotherhood, it holds in place a kinship system in which women figure as gifts or objects of exchange. Caliban's somewhat ambivalent repudiation of Miranda seems to free him from hostility and rivalry toward Prospero and Ferdinand, but in another sense, his gesture can also be read as a symbolic rejection of a potential gift—a daughter who is to be given to some man in marriage. Unlike feminist critics such as Leininger, Césaire, in his revision of Shakespeare's play, makes no attempt to reconceptualize the relationship between Caliban and Miranda, or to suggest any possibilities of a shared resistance to the patriarch. Anxieties about possible miscegenation, so crucial to Prospero's demonization of Caliban in Shakespeare's play, are repressed by Césaire in his diminishment of Miranda's role. Caliban's summary dismissal of any desire to possesses Miranda sexually is a convenient structural device for mobilizing an all-male revolution—one which recapitulates the kinship structure in its most basic form, giving a minimal presence to Miranda.

Thus, a play celebrating the emerging freedoms of the 1960s does not change Miranda's fate. Her marriage is once again arranged in a gift exchange that will ensure future peace and stability in a growing nation that will now combine two European city states. Prospero articulates this to Ariel at the outset: “These are men of my race and of high rank … I have a daughter. Alonso has a son. If they were to fall in love I would give my consent. Let Ferdinand and Miranda marry, and may that marriage bring us harmony and peace. That is my plan. I want it executed” (p. 16). Though Prospero willfully stays on this island to continue his “civilizing mission,” he ensures the consolidation of his kingdom through the alliance of Naples and Milan via the marriage of his daughter. Hence, while Césaire empowers Caliban to cry out unfailingly, “Freedom Hi-Day,” we never find out how Miranda's “brave new world” turns out after all.

While Miranda's circumscribed role conveniently fulfills the requirements of a European patriarchy, it is telling that Césaire does not introduce a woman who can be Caliban's “physiognomically complementary mate.” Writing in the context of the history of the Americas, and specifically from the perspective of Caribbean women, Sylvia Wynter criticizes Shakespeare's play for its absence of Caliban's mate:

[The] question is that of the most significant absence of all, that of Caliban's Woman, of Caliban's physiognomically complementary mate. For nowhere in Shakespeare's play, and in its system of image-making, one which would be foundational … to our present Western world system, does Caliban's mate appear as an alternative sexual-erotic model of desire … an alternative system of meanings. Rather there, on the New World island, as the only woman, Miranda … [is] contrasted with the ontologically absent, potential genetrix—Caliban's mate—of another population of human, i.e., of a “vile race” “capable of ill-will.”44

Reading this absence historically, Wynter (citing Caribbean writers like Maryse Condé) suggests that “the non-desire of Caliban for his own mate, Caliban's ‘woman’ is … a founding function of the ‘social pyramid’ of the global order that will be put in place following upon the 1492 arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean.”45 In this first phase of Western Europe's expansion into the Americas, given the expanding slave trade out of the “Europe-Africa-New World triangular traffic,” Caliban as “both the Arawak and African forced labour, [supposedly] had no need/desire for the procreation of his own kind.”46 It is ironic that these criticisms, revealing the limitations of Shakespeare's play, are also applicable to Césaire's revisionary version. Caliban's revolt can have little impact as long as the absence of a native woman as his sexual reproductive mate functions to negate the progeny/population group comprising the original owners/occupiers of the New World lands, the American Indians.

In conclusion, if Aimé Césaire's A Tempest is widely read as an allegory of decolonization, it fails to address adequately the relationship between liberation movements and the representations of sexual difference. Instead, it shows that if resistance movements are “imagined communities,” then such imaginings are frequently based upon particular, and often disempowering, constructions of women's sexuality.47 As gifts of exchange, or conduits of homosocial desire between men, women taking part in the movements for real national liberation could not escape the determinations of earlier kinship structures. Reflecting this historical trend, Césaire conveniently represents Miranda as the property of the colonizers, but more significantly, displaces the sexual, maternal identity of the “native” woman, Sycorax, onto the idealized abstraction of the Earth as Mother, while denying Caliban a potential union with a Caribbean woman. Finally, Césaire's call for a revolution lacks credibility as he prevents Prospero's former slave from peopling the isle with Calibans.


  1. George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (1960) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), p. 13.

  2. Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, trans. Edward Baker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 55.

  3. For fuller accounts of The Tempest and decolonization, see Eric Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 42-58. To follow the production of the term, “Cannibal,” see Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797 (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 1-3. Also see Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, pp. 6-21.

  4. Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism, p. 42.

  5. Retamar, Caliban and other Essays, pp. 6-21. Retamar offers a detailed history of the changing political images of Caliban in Latin American history through decolonization.

  6. Ibid., p. 14.

  7. Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, p. 14.

  8. Aimé Césaire, A Tempest: An Adaptation of The Tempest for Black Theatre, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Ubu Repertory Theatre Publications, 1969), p. 15.

  9. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, “Nymphs and Reapers Heavily Vanish: The Discursive Con-Texts of The Tempest,” in Alternative Shakespeares, John Drakakis, ed. (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 204.

  10. Virginia Vaughan, “‘Something Rich and Strange’: Caliban's Theatrical Metamorphoses,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 36.4 (Winter 1985): 390-405.

  11. Césaire, A Tempest, pp. 67-68.

  12. Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, p. 15.

  13. Sandra Pouchet Paquet, foreword to George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, pp. xxi-xxiv, offers a feminist critique of Lamming's postcolonial vision. Specifically, her focus on the missing Sycorax identifies the limitations of the postcolonial revisions of the original.

  14. Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, p. 55.

  15. See Louis A. Montrose, “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery,” in New World Encounters, Stephen Greenblatt, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 177-83, for a look at the ways in which the early colonial discourses were gendered, thus feminizing the “New Worlds.” His analysis offers a useful model for a rhetorical analysis of the structure of colonial narratives.

  16. Malek Alloula, Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 3.

  17. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (1952), trans. Charles Lamm Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 63.

  18. Paquet, foreword, Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, pp. xxi-xxii.

  19. Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, p. 114.

  20. Ibid., p. 107.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Paquet, foreword, ibid., p. xxii.

  23. William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1610-11) (New York: Signet Classic/Penguin, 1987). All quotations are taken from this edition.

  24. Coppèlia Kahn, “The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, Murray A. Schwartz and Coppèlia Kahn, eds. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 217-43.

  25. David Sundelson, “‘So Rare a Wonder’d Father’: Prospero's Tempest,” in ibid., pp. 33-55.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Stephen Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 51.

  28. I base my analysis of the structure of colonial discourse on Paul Brown's formulation, in “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Political Shakespeare, Jonathan Dollimore, ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 48-54.

  29. My application of the exchange of women in kinship systems is indebted to Gayle Rubin's feminist, anthropological analysis, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on a Political Economy of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, Reyna R. Reiter, ed. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), pp. 171-77. For a fuller discussion of Mauss' and Lévi-Strauss's theories by Rubin, see pp. 177-75.

  30. Ibid., pp. 174-75.

  31. Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1981), pp. 229-41. Leacock discusses the gender inflections of Lévi-Strauss' formulations as well the tendencies of other anthropologists “to seek universals in relations between the sexes,” pp. 231-33.

  32. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” pp. 172-74.

  33. Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” p. 55.

  34. John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 140-44. He locates Sycorax within the poetic geography of the period, by drawing on associations (made by Renaissance and earlier geographers and ethnographers) between her and other non-European others.

  35. Hulme, Colonial Encounters, pp. 111-12.

  36. Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” 51.

  37. Lorrie Jerrell Leininger, “The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare's The Tempest,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, Gayle Green, Ruth Swift Lenz, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 285-94.

  38. Leininger, “The Miranda Trap,” pp. 291-92.

  39. Ibid., p. 292.

  40. Laura Donaldson, Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender, and Empire-Building (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), p. 17.

  41. Césaire, A Tempest, act I, scene ii, p. 13. All subsequent quotes will be taken from this edition. Page numbers are noted in parenthesis within the text.

  42. Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism, p. 41.

  43. D.J.R. Bruckner, Review of A Tempest, New York Times, October 16, 1991, p. B 1.

  44. Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond Miranda's Meanings: Un/silencing the Demonic Ground of Caliban's Woman,” in Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savoury Fido, eds. (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990), p. 360.

  45. Ibid., pp. 360-61.

  46. Ibid., p. 361.

  47. I am indebted to the “Introduction” to Nationalisms and Sexualities, eds. Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 13, for this formulation of “imagined communities” derived from Bendict Anderson's useage. Several essays, under the section “Women, Resistance, and the State,” examine the relationship between resistance movements and social constructions of women's bodies, pp. 395-424.

Barbara Fuchs (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Conquering Islands: Contextualizing The Tempest,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 45-62.

[In the following essay, Fuchs extends typical colonialist interpretations of The Tempest to include the play's references to European imperialism in Ireland and the Islamic Mediterranean.]

It is an axiom of contemporary criticism that The Tempest is a play about the European colonial experience in America. While this perspective has generated enormously enriched readings of the play, it runs the risk of obscuring the complicated nuances of colonial discourses in the early seventeenth century. When is America not America? When it is Ireland, or North Africa, or Europe itself, or the no-man's-land (really every man's desired land) of the Mediterranean in-between. Just as the formal literary elements of a text—metaphors, puns, patterns—may signify in multiple ways, context, too, may be polysemous. By exploring other contexts for the insistent colonial concerns of Shakespeare's island play, I hope to show how a multiple historical interpretation can unpack the condensed layers of colonialist ideology. This type of reading depends not only on recent Tempest criticism—what one might call the American readings—but on studies of England's colonial role in Ireland. My aim is, first, to provide descriptions of the contemporary colonial contexts in both Ireland and the Mediterranean, which I believe shed light on the play, and, second, to suggest the advantages for political criticism of considering all relevant colonial contexts simultaneously. If, as I will argue, the superimposition of those contexts on the play reflects the way colonialist ideology is “quoted” from one contact zone to another in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, criticism that attempts to trace that ideology will gain from identifying precisely such layering of referents.1

My purpose in this essay is not to refute American readings of The Tempest; I agree with Peter Hulme that placing New World colonialism at the center of the play has made it a fundamentally more interesting and, at least for twentieth-century readers, a more relevant text.2 Instead, by highlighting the historical and political dimensions of the contemporary Mediterranean world and England's colonial experience in Ireland, I hope to continue to historicize the colonialist discourse that American readings first brought to the fore. Even in highly suggestive and politically sophisticated readings of The Tempest, the Mediterranean often equals the literary, the Aeneid, the essentially European, functioning largely as a background to American newes3—what Hulme calls the first layer of a textual palimpsest.4 The new transatlantic colonial discourse works itself out against this background of the Aeneid and classical Mediterranean travels. Yet this critical privileging of America as the primary context of colonialism for the play obscures the very real presence of the Ottoman threat in the Mediterranean in the early seventeenth century and elides the violent English colonial adventures in Ireland, which paved the way for plantation in Virginia.

Although twentieth-century historians can speak of the Ottoman Empire in the early seventeenth century as having “passed its peak,”5 such a perspective was hardly available, as Samuel Chew points out, to contemporary observers of Islam's might.6 As I hope to show, the sense of an Eastern empire encroaching on Europe pervades Shakespeare's play, making the European “center” of the text simultaneously the origin of colonial adventure and the target of another empire's expansionism. The general absence of Ireland from discussions of colonialism in the play is troubling, particularly since the devastation of a native population and its culture was more deliberate and vicious in England's first plantation than in its later ventures in Virginia. As Paul Brown has suggested, there are strong analogies between Prospero's island and Elizabethan Ireland, which locate them both “between American and European discourse.”7

The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads.

The Commitments

What are we to make of Roddy Doyle's equation—his rather tongue-in-cheek justification for an Irish band's focus on soul music? Doyle has found a parallel between the situation of African Americans within the U.S. and that of the Irish vis-à-vis postimperialist Europe. While his use of the ugly term niggers indicates the conflictive nature of such a comparison (in that the register of working-class/colonized solidarity fails to transcend racial prejudice, and in that the comparison problematically erases the presence in Europe of large black immigrant populations), Doyle's comparison also parodies the discursive strategies of quotation which contribute to colonization. By comparing them to another oppressed population, Doyle establishes the right of the Irish to soul; ironically, the colonization of Ireland itself depended largely on strategies of comparison which represented its conquest as a repetition of earlier imperialist ventures to Africa and the Americas. As Nicholas P. Canny has pointed out, the colonization of Ireland functioned as an apprenticeship for England's plantation in the Americas.8 I propose to focus here on the discursive dimension of this education—what I term colonial quotation.

By quotation I mean the references by colonial writers to the works of earlier explorers and planters as well as the larger rhetorical maneuver of assimilating the unknown by equating it with the already-known. Such quotation does not overlap perfectly with the notion of translatio imperii—the westward translation of Rome's imperial tradition to the nascent European empires. However the quoted discourse may use translatio imperii as its particular justification.9 The quotation of colonialist discourse from one instance to the next naturalizes expansion by bringing newly “discovered” lands and people under the conceptual domain of the already-known, the already-digested. Thus this particular kind of intertextuality advances a colonialist ideology.10

The equation between prior and ongoing colonial encounters may be achieved by literal textual quotation of authorities, by referring to the colonist's own previous experiences in another territory, or by reading a newly discovered culture as another manifestation of one already othered. Such a strategy underlies the remarkable encounter between Trinculo and Caliban in 2.2 of The Tempest, where the European does not know what the man/fish is but certainly knows what to make of it: a for-profit display like the multiple “dead Indians” in London fairs: “Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday-fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man—any strange beast there makes a man” (ll. 27-30).11

The context of exhibition that Trinculo quotes serves to frame the new and bring it under his dominion. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that the man “made” by such exhibition would be not Caliban attaining human status but Trinculo made rich.12 Although Trinculo claims to “let loose” his earlier opinion when he realizes that Caliban is alive, even calling him an “islander,” the framework of exhibition is immediately reinstated by Stephano, who says he would take the monster home to present to a ruler or sell for profit (ll. 67-68, 74-75). Alive or dead, Caliban fulfills the role of spectacular other and, throughout the comic process of recognition by which Stephano and Trinculo discover him, occupies an abject position. His monstrosity corresponds quite neatly to the Europeans' expectations. For Caliban himself, of course, the situation is framed by Prospero's abusive treatment, which has scripted him as victim.

Caliban's cloak plays a central part in this complicated series of misrecognitions and discoveries, especially as a signal of the play's Irish context. The presence of the cloak does not prove such a context, but it suggests how English domination of Ireland might take cover in the text under precisely such details. The cloak, I would argue, is the only native artifact allowed Caliban. He first shrouds under it in order to escape detection by Trinculo, who he fears is a spirit in Prospero's service. Trinculo does discover him and immediately joins him under his “gaberdine” to seek protection from the storm.13 There Stephano finds the two of them—a curious hybrid creature with four legs and two mouths, recalling Iago's characterization of Othello and Desdemona's marriage as a miscegenistic “beast with two backs.” Such unhallowed combinations are precisely the issue here, as Trinculo unwittingly becomes monstrous in Stephano's eyes. Given England's anxiety over distinguishing savage from civilized, islander from colonizer in Ireland, it is possible to read this episode in Shakespeare's text as one of the indices of this colonial adventure.

The English conquest of Ireland was a messy affair. The twelfth-century Anglo-Norman conquest had provided England with a foothold in Dublin and the eastern counties—an area known as the Pale—while large portions of Ireland remained, literally and figuratively, beyond the Pale of English authority.14 Cruel attempts to control the island during Elizabeth's rule were both enabled and impeded by this earlier conquest. Over the intervening four centuries the Old English settlers had become in cultural terms all but indistinguishable from the Irish, which hugely complicated English attempts to fight the colonial war on cultural turf by proscribing Irish custom, dress, and social institutions. One of the earliest English statutes in Ireland, enacted in 1297, had required the English to “relinquish the Irish dress,” while the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 had expressly linked English adoption of the “manners, fashion, and language of the Irish enemies” to the decay of “the said land and its liege people, the English language, the allegiance due to our lord the king, and the English laws.”15 By the sixteenth century, despite such separatist legislation, Old English settlers had adopted many Irish ways. The imperfect allegiance of the Anglo-Irish nobility to Elizabeth and to her metropolitan power was reflected in their rather less ambivalent embrace of Irish culture.

The Irish mantle became a particularly loaded signifier of such cultural struggles.16 In Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) the two interlocutors, Eudoxus and Irenius, propose several competing genealogies for such mantles. Irenius states that the Irish have such a custom “from the Scythians,” to which Eudoxus responds with a long history tracing the mantle from Jews to “Caldees” and Egyptians, through Greeks and Romans. But Irenius—who is given an extensive last word on the matter—cuts that history short:

I cannot deny but anciently it was common to most, and yet Sithence disused and laid away. But in this latter age of the world since the decay of the Roman Empire, it was renewed and brought in again by those northern nations, when breaking out of their cold caves and frozen habitation into the sweet soil of Europe, they brought with them their usual weeds, fit to shield the cold and that continual frost to which they had at home been enured; the which yet they left not off, by reason that they were in perpetual wars with the nations where they had invaded, but still removing from place to place carried always with them that weed as their house, their bed and their garment, and coming lastly into Ireland they found there more special use thereof, by reason of the raw cold climate, from whom it is now grown into that general use in which that people now have it; afterward the Africans succeeding, yet finding the like necessity of that garment, continued the like use thereof.17

The mantle—house, bed, and garment—becomes inextricably linked to Irish transhumance, the seasonal movement of people and their livestock in search of pastures, one of the practices that most disturbed the English and which they associated closely with barbarity and “enormities unto that commonwealth.”18 Yet this history looks forward, too, by projecting the mantle from the Irish to the Africans, despite the logic of climatic determinism. Irenius does not deny the mantle a genealogy but simply replaces the history of civil peoples with one of savagery, setting the stage for the kind of colonialist quotation that I shall analyze below.

The discussion of the mantle continues at some length, with Irenius paradoxically providing more examples of the usefulness of such garments the more he seeks to criticize them. The perspective from under the cloak differs greatly from that outside it—as Irenius says, “the commodity doth not countervail the discommodity. … for it is a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief.”19 One's appreciation of the mantle, then, will vary radically according to whether one is the persecuted or the persecutor. In Spenser's description the mantle becomes the reified signifier of Irish resistance, which cannot be fully penetrated by English authority, even with English ethnography leading the way. As Jones and Stallybrass argue, “The mantle represents Irishness as the refusal to adopt English order, English social categories, English style.”20 Moreover, as one of the prime signifiers of Irishness, the mantle served to assess the extent to which earlier settlers had “gone native”: the adoption of the mantle was presumably the culminating move in such acculturation.21 It is significant, then, that this problem is carefully avoided in Irenius and Eudoxus's discussion, as the latter moves quickly from the mantle to a warning about English use of the “glib,” or long bangs over the eyes:

Sure I think Diogenes' dish did never serve his master more turns, notwithstanding that he made his dish his cup, his measure, his waterpot, then a mantle doth an Irishman, but I see they be all to bad intents, and therefore I will join with you in abolishing it. But what blame lay you to then glib? Take heed, I pray you, that you be not too busy therewith, for fear of your own blame, seeing our Englishmen take it up in such a general fashion, to wear their hair so unmeasurably long that some of them exceed the longest Irish glibs.22

The Irish glibs, Irenius answers, are “fit masks as a mantle is for a thief.” The subject of English mimicry of Irish fashions, however, has once again been carefully avoided. If, as Sir John Davies wrote, the Old English imitating Irish ways are “like those who had drunke of Circes Cuppe, and were turned into very Beasts,” the real threat lay not in the power of the witch but in the fact that her colonist victims “tooke such pleasure in their beastly manner of life, as they would not returne to their shape of men againe.”23 The metaphor takes on an interesting resonance if read back into Spenserian allegory in Book II of The Faerie Queene. In the Bower of Bliss, Acrasia/Circe's cup threatens not so much the disarmed knight (who can, after all, be disenchanted) as it does Grill, who stubbornly insists on going—and staying—native, famously refusing to be saved back into civilization.

The cultural warfare so well exemplified by Spenser's diatribe was just one front of attack in the English conquest of Ireland. As the violence escalated from the 1560s to the early part of the seventeenth century, anti-Irish rhetoric became ever more virulent, precisely to justify the widening attacks against Irish civilian populations. Ireland did eventually provide large estates for English gentlemen, but only after a bloody and extended struggle such as the English had not expected. Throughout this conflict, Ireland and America were both considered attractive options for expansionist ambitions; when particularly frustrated in their Irish campaigns, colonizers like Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Ralegh turned to America instead. Similarly, when the earliest English settlements at Roanoke proved impossible to sustain, such veterans of the American voyages as Thomas Hariot and John White tried planting in Ireland as an alternative.24

The connection between these desirable colonies as expansionist sites was established rhetorically at a number of levels. The description of dress—to return to our discussion of Caliban's cloak—is one of the clearest instances of the quoting of a previous colonial experience in a new plantation. The English often perceived the Americas through an Irish filter. Thus Gabriel Archer described the natives' leggings in New England as “like to Irish Dimmie Trouses,” and Martin Pring saw natives with “a Beares skinne like an Irish Mantle over one shoulder.”25 Even Powhatan's dress was described by one of John Smith's companions as “a faire Robe of skins as large as an Irish mantle.”26 As the comparisons expand beyond costume to other cultural practices, such as “wild” mourning, devil worship, and transhumance—all of which the English believed they had found on both sides of the Atlantic—it becomes easier to see how such comparisons contribute to the “othering” of a culture by assimilating it conceptually to one already subdued, if not conquered.27 The resulting quotations function as the colonist's mirror image of miscegenation: instead of the confusion of racial boundaries that might actually threaten his dominion, he creates a purely rhetorical union of various colonial subjects. The others are insistently other but similar among themselves. I should stress, of course, that both the similarities and differences quoted belong to a constructed “text” of culture.28

Quoting from one colonial context to the other serves to domesticate the new—the American experience—and equate it with the already-advanced plantation of Ireland. Yet the considerable chronological overlap of European colonial experience in Ireland and America makes the temporal sequence more difficult to untangle. Although Ireland's subjection is the primary colonial context for England in the 1590s and early 1600s, that conquest is in turn justified by comparing the English role in Ireland to that of the Spaniards in America.29 References to previous Spanish conquests introduce a kind of reciprocity in colonialist quoting, with Ireland as the middle term: the English quote the Spanish experience in America in order to justify England's role in Ireland, and then transfer that Irish experience to Virginia. Yet the process of quotation must reach increasingly farther back in history for additional terms to substantiate the comparison. Thus the similarity between the English situation in Ireland and the Spanish Conquista—a problematic one considering Elizabethan propaganda against Spain—is reinforced by allusions to the Reconquista, or expulsion of the Moors from Spain, to further buttress colonialist apologias. Davies justifies the forcible transplantation of the Irish in Ulster by referring to “the Spaniards [who] lately removed all the Moors out of Grenada into Barbary, without providing them any new seats there.”30 The end of the comparison gives away Davies's conscience: Spain was far more concerned with preventing the return of the Moors expelled from North Africa than with their resettlement. In Ireland what to do with a starving peasant population forcibly removed from its land was a question not easily addressed.

Nicholas Canny finds the main source for the English/Spanish connection in Richard Eden's translation of Peter Martyr's De Orbe Novo (1555), which was probably familiar to English notables in Ireland in the 1560s.31 The Spanish conquest of the Americas became a model for the domination of savage peoples, so that the English comparison of their own role in Ireland to the Spanish conquests became closely imbricated with the construction of the Irish as barbarous. In this colonialist logic, once the Irish were thus characterized, they became appropriate subjects for the same treatment Native Americans had received at the hands of the Spanish. That the English reviled Spanish behavior, disseminating the infamous Black Legend of Spanish atrocities in the Indies, seems not to have impeded use of this model when the Irish situation made it expedient.32 English characterizations of Irish savagery, based on the natives' supposed paganism and transhumance, proceeded apace: by 1560 Archbishop Matthew Parker could take such descriptions as a given, advocating the establishment of resident clergy in the north of England to prevent the inhabitants from becoming “too much Irish and savage.”33

In constructing the Irish as savages, the English placed them within a temporal framework in which Ireland existed at a stage of social development long since surpassed by England. Ireland required civilizing by England in much the same way that England had required colonizing by Rome.34 Sir Thomas Smith engaged in this rather partial relativism when he explained:

This I write unto you as I do understand by histories of thyngs by past, how this contrey of England, ones as uncivill as Ireland now is, was by colonies of the Romaynes brought to understand the lawes and orders of thanncient orders whereof there hath no nacon more streightly and truly kept the mouldes even to this day then we, yea more than thitalians and Romaynes themselves.35

The recognition of one's own past in another by no means implies an acceptance of that other; it instead establishes a temporal dynamic in which that other must be made the same—forcibly brought up to date, so to speak. Here, England has already been civilized, having accepted the imposition of the Roman mold. This shapely civility then authorizes the imposition of a similar rule on Ireland, as translatio imperii becomes a kind of translatio morum.

English emphasis on the need to civilize the savage Irish partly replaces an earlier model of colonialist justification in which the Old English had argued that the Irish needed to be liberated from the tyranny of their own ruling class but were essentially fit subjects for English law and, indeed, desirable tenants or laborers.36 It is possible to read these shifting constructions of the colonial subject in the two depictions of islanders in Shakespeare's text. Although Ariel need not be read as the co-opted native, as some modern rewritings of The Tempest insist, it is possible to view him as the colonizer's fantasy of a pliant, essentially accommodating, and useful subject. Of course, the play's ironic presentation of Prospero's fantasy shows the tensions inherent in this model. Ariel's gratitude is never as complete or as certain as Prospero would wish. Perhaps, the text suggests, a liberated native tends to interpret liberation in terms rather different from those of his or her enlightened liberator. In the lively prehistory of the play, Prospero freed Ariel from Sycorax's tyranny—wonderfully literalized in the pine trunk that bound him; but it is unclear whether subjugation to the new magician on the scene really means more liberty for the sprite.

Caliban, meanwhile, recalls the second model developed by the English to justify colonization: the Irish subject in need of civilizing. Miranda's speech presents the colonizer's story of attempts to civilize the native and locates the supposed intractability of Caliban in his lack of language (1.2.350-61). Consider her description of his inability to express himself:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known.

(ll. 352-57)

Emphasis on the impenetrability of Caliban's language—even he, according to Miranda, cannot understand it—evokes the English colonizers' frustration with Gaelic as a barrier to their penetration of the territory.37 But Caliban cannot be “liberated” simply by being taught English. The end of Miranda's speech betrays the unspoken half of the colonialist argument: if the native's “vile race” makes him inherently unsuited to civilization, then violence is justified:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            But thy vile race—
Though thou didst learn—had that in’t which good natures
Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
Deservedly confined into this rock,
Who hadst deserved more than a prison.

(ll. 357-61)

Here the duplicitous logic of colonialist ideology is exposed: if one explanation for Caliban's subjection doesn’t work, a more essentialist one will be found. Language is more useful than Caliban knows.

My point is not that the elements of colonialist discourse in the text do not apply to the Americas. It would be ridiculous to deny that the English experienced a similar or even greater disorientation when confronted with American languages and cultures than with Gaelic. Instead, I am attempting to display the layering of such contexts in the play, from the basic discourse of savagery developed by the English in Ireland to their eventual experiences in the Americas. To read only America in The Tempest is to ignore the connections that colonial quotation establishes between England's two main Western plantations, connections perhaps expressed most graphically in the instability of their geographic referents. In the first part of the seventeenth century, Ireland could be, as it was to Bacon, “the second island of the ocean Atlantic,” or it could migrate to a completely different conceptual context, as in Fynes Moryson's description of “This famous Island in the Virginian Sea.”38

This Tunis, sir, was Carthage.


Even within these pages it has not been possible to separate Irish and Mediterranean colonial contexts without postponing the insistent presence of the latter, as the English in Ireland compare themselves to the Spaniards expelling the Moors and the Irish mantle is sighted not only in America but in Africa. Our inability to describe simultaneously the bewildering number of ways in which early modern Europe experienced other civilizations prevents us from uncovering all the connections among those experiences, but a focus on one area of contact should not preclude consideration of others. Ann Rosalind Jones has tried to bring together multiple cultural encounters by exploring the often-made comparison of Vittoria Colombina's Moorish maid Zanche to the Irish in Webster's The White Devil.39 The attribution to Zanche of both Irish and Moorish savagery is particularly evocative if we consider that two terms of the comparison represent, respectively, a newly established Western colony of England and an Eastern empire that was a threat to England. Such a conflation of attributes in the figure of the Moorish maid may suggest how the English import a gendered discourse into their cultural negotiations with the Moors in order to disable the Islamic threat.

Textual signs of English anxiety about Islamic power in the Mediterranean abound in the play, though critics generally relegate those signs to a literary register. When discussing the marriage of Alonso's daughter Claribel to the king of Tunis, Gonzalo points out that Tunis is, in a fundamental way, Carthage: “This Tunis, sir, was Carthage.” Critics hastily explain Carthage, with its baggage of Virgilian associations, as though the mention of Tunis were self-explanatory.40 While some recent criticism has explored the early seventeenth-century construction of Islam in the English theater,41 there are specific textual traces of the imperial Ottoman threat in The Tempest. Even though by the 1580s trade was established between England and the Turkish world, the perceived menace of Islam was still great. Writing his Generall Historie of the Turkes in 1603, Richard Knolles calls them “the greatest terrour of the world” and advocates the reading of his text because the Ottoman Empire “in our time so flourisheth, and at this present so mightily swelleth as if it would ouerflow all, were it not by the mercie of God.”42 The threat of Islam existed on two fronts: southeastern Europe (which will not concern us here) and the Mediterranean. Knolles shows great respect for Ottoman power on both land and sea: “With the great Ocean [the Ottoman monarch] much medleth not, more than a little in the gulfes of Persia and Arabia: most of his territories lying vpon the Mediterranean and Euxine seas. … Now for these seas, no prince in the world hath greater or better means to set forth his fleets than hath he.”43

During the sixteenth century the Barbary Coast that figures so prominently in Shakespeare's play had come gradually under Turkish power.44 In fact, Algiers, Sycorax's home before her banishment, had been captured by the Turks in the 1530s. Charles V led an expedition against it in 1541 but without success. Tunis itself had very recently been the site of a European struggle against the Ottoman Empire: captured by the Spanish in 1572, it was reconquered by the Turks in 1574.45

Morocco had never been part of the empire, and a substantial diplomatic relationship developed between its rulers and Elizabeth, allied together against both the Spanish and the Turks.46 After James's peace with Spain, England abandoned its rather fanciful plans for invading Spain with Morocco's help and instead considered invading Morocco. Writing to King James, Henry Roberts suggested that the campaign be carried out with “Irish solduars and they of the Out Isles,” as “the countrey wilbee the better to bee ridd of them, for they bee but idle and will never fall to worke but steale as longe as they remaine in Ireland.”47 Once again the colonized—here proposed as mercenaries—return to English rhetoric as new conquests are envisioned.

The possibility of conquering Morocco, however remote, might account for the representation of non-Turkish Moors, in plays such as Heywood's Fair Maid of the West, as embodying a “dangerous but effeminate otherness that finally renders them safely inferior to their European visitors,” as Jean Howard puts it.48 But Howard makes race the main cause of such a representation, minimizing the difference between Turks and Moroccan Moors in terms of an expansionist imperative. I think that the difference in terms of an imperial threat is fundamental: isolated Morocco could be an ally or, treacherously, could be turned into a colony; under the Ottoman Empire the rest of North Africa remained a much greater threat. Thus England's willingness to consider Moroccan Islam a lesser threat than Spanish Catholicism: Morocco was not an expansionist power, or at least not in the direction of Europe.

The perceived threat from the Ottoman Empire itself, however, did not abate, even after the decisive victory at Lepanto. This 1571 naval battle was hailed as the triumph of Christendom over the Turks, but it was soon clear that the intra-European alliances necessary to mount a credible challenge to Ottoman power would not last. One textual record of the unusual place that Lepanto occupied in the history of the European struggle against Islam is King James's epic poem on the subject, written after the battle and republished when he acceded to the English throne.49 The poem caught Richard Knolles's attention, and he dedicates his history to James, “for that your Majestie hath not disdained in your Lepanto or Heroicall Song, with your learned Muse to adorne and set forth the greatest and most glorious victory that euer was by any the Christian confederat princes obtained against these the Othoman Kings or Emperors.”50 Perhaps the most interesting signs of the European tensions that made the Lepanto victory unrepeatable appear in James's preface to the reader, where he provides an extensive set of justifications for a Protestant monarch's praise of the Catholic alliance: “And … I knowe, the special thing misliked in it, is, that I should seeme, far contrary to my degree and Religion, like a Mercenary Poët, to penne a worke, ex professo, in praise of a forraine Papist bastard. … ” Although the extraordinary circumstances of the battle justify his praise of Don Juan of Austria “as of a particular man,” James suggests, the reader should not extrapolate from that praise any sympathy for the Catholic League: “Next follows my invocation to the true God only, and not to all the He and She Saints, for whose vain honors, DON- IOAN fought in all his wars.”51 In James's ambivalent unwriting of the poem's epic praise, we see reflected the fragility of the European unity that had led to the great naval triumph.

In the years after Lepanto, as English trade with the Turks was gradually established, England developed a complex relationship to the Ottoman threat. While a healthy respect for the Turks' imperial might prevailed, Islam (especially in the Moroccan version) also became a term in an elaborate set of rhetorical constructions which played it off against Catholicism as a lesser, or merely equivalent, evil. An observer like Knolles, however, thought that Spain, given its American riches, was the most appropriate power to deal with the Turkish emperor:

There remaineth only the king of Spaine, of all other the great princes either Christians or Mahometanes (bordering vpon him) the best able to deale with him; his yearely reuenewes so farre exceeding those of the Turkes. …52

Knolles suggests that the Spanish have the best chance of defeating the Turks but regrets that their resources are spread too thin over their many possessions “for the necessarie defence and keeping of his so large and dispersed territories.”53

For England the situation vis-à-vis the Turks was further complicated by piracy in the Mediterranean. As the sixteenth century drew to a close, petty piracy gradually replaced large naval encounters.54 English merchants were prey to Barbary pirates from Algiers or Tunis, but English piracy also flourished, glorified during Elizabeth's reign as privateering against the Spanish and alternately condemned and condoned once peace with Spain had been reached. When English pirates fell out of favor at home, they “turned Turk.” Purchas locates the scandalous confusion of Moors and English renegades in Algiers, which he calls “the Whirlepoole of these Seas, the Throne of Pyracie, the Sinke of Trade and the Stinke of Slavery; the Cage of uncleane Birds of Prey, the Habitation of Sea-Devils, the Receptacle of Renegadoes of God, and Traytors to their Country.”55 But the figure of the English renegade seemed threatening, I conjecture, mainly because it shattered the carefully constructed mirroring of Barbary Coast pirates in English privateering. As long as this mirror image was maintained, the English could imagine a role for themselves in controlling the Mediterranean. Once English pirates became, effectively, outlaws and went over to the other side, England was at a disadvantage, having no official expansionist presence in such contested territory. This complicated background of piracy on the sea and traditional Islamic expansionism on land lies behind the Algiers described as Sycorax's birthplace in The Tempest, 1.2. Yet even that origin is made more complicated by the location of the main action of the play on an island somewhere between Tunis and Italy.

In some ways the Mediterranean islands themselves were the most volatile territories in the region. Malta had withstood the Turkish assault in 1565, but the Knights of St. John had moved there only when it proved impossible to defend Rhodes. Cyprus, too, was in Turkish hands, as even the victory at Lepanto had proved insufficient to reconquer it. All the islands were especially vulnerable, of course, to pirate raids. Any island imagined in the Mediterranean at the time of the play, then, would be understood to exist in a hotly contested space, permanently threatened by the Ottoman Empire if not directly under its control.

If one focuses on Tunis and the threat it posed to the Christian areas of the Mediterranean, the indecorous marriage that sets the royal party in The Tempest on their journey becomes ever more outrageous. If the marriage of Desdemona to Othello is controversial, it could at least be partly redeemed by the fact that Othello the Moor fights against the Turks on the side of Venice. To marry a daughter to the king of Tunis, while perhaps expedient in political terms, is a far more radical move than to pair her off in some convenient European alliance. To Lynda Boose's argument that “the black male-white female union is, throughout this period and earlier, most frequently depicted as the ultimate romantic-transgressive model of erotic love,”56 I would add that the chastening tragic end of Othello cannot be discounted as one vision of such unions. The threat of violence to Christian women from irascible foreign husbands is well chronicled in Knolles, who tells the story of Manto …, a Greek lady taken prisoner by the Turks, who marries Ionuses Bassa, an official in Suleiman's army. After an initial interlude of married bliss, Bassa, “after the manner of sensuall men still fearing least that which so much pleased himselfe, gaue no lesse contentment to others also,” becomes madly jealous.57 Manto tries to leave him and return to her country but is betrayed by a eunuch, whereupon her husband kills her. This story could have served as a source for Othello; whether or not it did so, it highlights the dangers that Europe imagined for a woman married into the empire of Islam. Such a union would probably be more acceptable in European eyes when (as with Othello fighting for Venice or the Prince of Morocco coming to Belmont to woo Portia unsuccessfully in The Merchant of Venice) it involved the domestication of the foreign male rather than the removal of a European woman to North Africa or Asia Minor. As Sebastian points out, rubbing salt in Alonso's wounds:

Sir, you may thank yourself for this great loss,
That would not bless our Europe with your daughter,
But rather lose her to an African,
Where she, at least, is banished from your eye,
Who hath cause to wet the grief on’t.


The description of Claribel's forced marriage recalls grim accounts of Christians captured by Barbary Coast pirates rather than stories of transgressive romance. Sebastian continues to insist upon the near-sacrificial nature of the union:

You were kneeled to and importuned otherwise
By all of us, and the fair soul herself
Weighed between loathness and obedience at
Which end o’th’ beam should bow. …

(ll. 126-29)

What does this marriage tell us, then, about the sexual politics of the play as a sublimated arena for imperial struggles? Knolles suggests the reason for the Claribel-Tunis union when he describes Naples as the European border of the Ottoman Empire. Alonso is thoroughly chastised for his decision to marry off his daughter (presumably to contain Islamic attacks on Naples), but the reproaches come from one who wishes him ill and would usurp his crown. The thoroughly negative characterization of the island conspirators somewhat relegitimizes the marriage, since it is mainly Sebastian who condemns it. Yet the most telling reaction to the supposed alliance with Tunis comes when Sebastian and Antonio discuss murdering Alonso for his crown. At this point Claribel entirely replaces her Moorish consort, as her femaleness is used to fix Islam firmly in Africa. When Antonio asks Sebastian who, after Ferdinand, is next in line to the crown of Naples, Sebastian answers “Claribel.” Antonio then places Claribel at a further and further remove from the crown by insisting on the impossible distances that separate her from Europe:

She that is Queen of Tunis; she that dwells
Ten leagues beyond man's life; she that from Naples
Can have no note unless the sun were post—
The man i’ th’ moon's too slow—till newborn chins
Be rough and razorable; she that from whom
We all were sea-swallowed, though some cast again—
And by that destiny, to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.
What stuff is this? How say you?
’Tis true my brother's daughter's Queen of Tunis,
So is she heir of Naples, ’twixt which regions
There is some space.
A space whose every cubit
Seems to cry out, ‘How shall that Claribel
Measure us back to Naples? Keep in Tunis,
And let Sebastian wake.’


Sebastian's commonsense rejoinder about “some space” is perfectly reasonable, considering that the distance from Tunis to Naples, as Stephen Orgel points out, is three hundred miles.58 But what interests me here is the incredible amplification of space that Antonio imagines, as he expands the Mediterranean into an immense ocean. His hyperbole not only makes the crossing impossible but also neatly obscures its possible agents. Although Antonio measures the length of the voyage by a man's lifespan, by the man in the moon's speed, and by the time it takes for a baby boy to reach manhood, the actual man Claribel has married is nowhere to be found in the passage. Presumably, however, the king of Tunis would support his royal consort's claims to a European throne; perhaps his interest in conquering that throne justified the marriage in the first place. Antonio's exclusive focus on the possibility of Claribel's return should thus be read as a strategy for containing the role of Islam in the play. In a perverse metonymy, the European woman, instead of her threatening husband, becomes “Tunis.” Unlike “Norway,” “Denmark,” “Morocco,” “Aragon,” and other heroic national appellations, the name of “Tunis” signifies only an infinitely distant Claribel. Much as the Turks in Othello are conveniently drowned in a single line of dialogue—“News, friends: our wars are done; the Turks are drown’d” (2.1.202)—in order to allow the domestic action to proceed, Antonio's relocation of Claribel to faraway Tunis and his erasure of her husband define the power struggles within the play as essentially European, regardless of the place where they are occurring. Of course Alonso's party is itself an exception to the supposed impossibility of getting to Tunis. Antonio admits this but points to their being “sea-swallowed” on their return. And yet the very urgency of the conspiracies on the island would indicate that the Italians have little doubt they will eventually return home. The play's containment of “Tunis”—a pressing, contemporary imperial threat—by focusing on Claribel's distance rehearses the earlier containment of a historical empire, Carthage, through the jocund references to “Widow Dido” in 2.1.

In The Tempest gender does the work of imperialism rather than of discovery.59 The containment of the Islamic threat to European sovereignty or Mediterranean expansion plays itself out once again in the peculiar story of Sycorax's banishment from Algiers. This expulsion functions as a screen for European fears of Islamic control of the Mediterranean islands. Sycorax—cast as too awful even for the rough society of Algiers—is banished, as Prospero (whose source for this knowledge is somewhat unclear) tells Ariel, “For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible / To enter human hearing” (1.2.264-65). Yet her banishment was a commuted sentence; her life was spared “for one thing she did”—that is, her pregnancy. This ascription of mercy to the Algerians, reflecting European law, effectively replaces the Barbary pirates or Ottoman galleys—whose power so impressed Knolles—with the flimsy bark of sailors on a charitable mission who deposited the pregnant Sycorax on the island. Again, the metonymic reduction of Islam to the figure of the witch is perverse, for what is at stake in the Mediterranean is not the “Satanic” side of Islam—which Sycorax might represent—but its military might. The rewriting of Islamic expansionism into an errand of mercy operates once again through a female figure—a type of containment far more subtle than the effeminization Howard points to in Heywood's play, or even than the commonplace associations of the East with luxury and sensuousness. Here the female figures take the place of the threatening Moors, so that the latter are disarmed at a remove. By indirectly neutralizing the threat of Islam, the text of The Tempest prevents any direct engagement with its forces, addressing instead a female version, which is more easily conquered, at least in rhetoric. As the action of the play proves, Sycorax represents a temporary presence rather than an effective Islamic conquest of the island; her son Caliban loses it immediately to the Europeans. Moreover, this second instance of containment through figuration is presented by Prospero, who, whatever his colonialist failings, clearly represents a center of moral authority in the text. Thus it is not only conspirators who turn to the feminine as a strategy for ensuring European power: Prospero's story emasculates Algerian naval power just as Antonio and Sebastian's fantasies erase the king of Tunis.

The gendered dynamics of Mediterranean containment in the play recall the more common gendered colonialist trope of ravishing a newly discovered land. Clearly this particular island no longer has her maidenhead; she is thoroughly known by Caliban, who was familiar with her secrets even before Prospero arrived, and who showed Prospero “all the qualities o’th’ isle” (l. 337). Instead of rhapsodizing the European rape of the island, then, the text provides as counter-metaphor another rape—Caliban's attempt on Miranda—as colonialist justification (ll. 347-48).60 Caliban's attack on Prospero's daughter once more genders the colonizing impulse; here it is the defense of the European woman that justifies repression of the non-European.

The triad of female figures which I have considered (two of them absent, two largely submissive daughters) thus participates in the text's containment of Islamic expansionism and its more complex espousal of European colonialism. The rhetorical representation of the women, through hyperbole, metonymy, and the anti-metaphor of Miranda's near-rape, performs European imperial goals at the discursive level, and it is only by interrupting that performance through, for example, a consideration of the play's multiple contexts that the illusionism can be examined.

Thus the discursive work of gender functions as yet another set of colonialist strategies. Much like the use of quotation which I identified when discussing the connections between English experiences in Ireland and America, these rhetorical strategies in The Tempest make sense only when viewed from the perspective of multiple contexts. Europe's experience of being another empire's goal was closely bound up, temporally, materially, and rhetorically, with its burgeoning experience of empire-building; it is no wonder, then, that the multiple dimensions come together in a text as complex and polysemous as The Tempest. By purposely conflating and collapsing these contexts, I have attempted to give a political reading of the play which insists on what Richard Knolles would call “the four parts of the world,” in order to prevent Shakespeare's island play from itself becoming isolated somewhere in the Americas.


  1. I take the term “contact zone” from Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992). Pratt uses this term to replace “colonial frontier,” a term “grounded within a European expansionist perspective” (6-7).

    In her suggestive “Rogues, Shepherds, and the Counterfeit Distressed: Texts and Infracontexts of The Winter's Tale 4.3,” (Shakespeare Studies 22 [1994]: 58-76), Barbara A. Mowat explores the “infracontexts” of The Winter's Tale. In my analysis of The Tempest, I will show how such superimposition of contexts serves colonialist ideologies. In discussing what I shall call “colonial quotation,” I adhere to a wide definition of intertextuality as a relation between not only literary but also cultural texts. This notion of intertextuality recognizes that, as Roland Barthes argues, “The logic that governs the Text is not comprehensive (seeking to define ‘what the work means’) but metonymic; and the activity of associations, contiguities, and cross-references coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy” (“From Work to Text” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, Josué V. Harari, ed. [Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1979], 73-81, esp. 76). Unlike Barthes, I perceive such symbolic energy as driving a particular ideological project.

  2. See Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), 106.

  3. William C. Spengemann, in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1994), points out that America “was in fact the source of the genre called ‘newes’” (97).

  4. See Hulme, 108-9.

  5. Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford UP, 1993), 16.

  6. See Samuel C. Chew, The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance (New York: Oxford UP, 1937), 100.

  7. Paul Brown, “‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’: The Tempest and the discourse of colonialism” in Political Shakespeare: Essays in cultural materialism, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds., 2d ed. (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1994), 48-71, esp. 57.

  8. See Nicholas P. Canny, “The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America,” William and Mary Quarterly 30 (1973): 575-98.

  9. For one approach to the role of translation in colonization, see Eric Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991).

  10. In his “Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories” (Shakespeare Quarterly 45 [1994]: 1-32) Michael Neill suggests how a different form of quotation might serve to counter colonialism. If, as he argues, Irish nationalism was produced by the same English nationalism that violently redefined and colonized Ireland, then perhaps the strategy of quotation need not work entirely to the conquerors' advantage.

  11. Quotations of The Tempest in this essay follow the Oxford text (ed. Stephen Orgel [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987]).

  12. I find Brown's identification of Trinculo with the “footloose Irish” (56) as a masterless barbarian unconvincing, given that Trinculo so clearly occupies the position of colonizer in this episode. This is not to suggest, however, that the text is not staging an anxiety about the English masterless classes.

  13. In his introduction, Cheyfitz suggests that this reference to gaberdines links Caliban to the Jews (xii), although the main evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary for such a connection derives from Shakespeare's own usage in The Merchant of Venice (Oxford English Dictionary, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, 2d ed., 20 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989], 6:302). I would argue that the highly charged discourse about Irish coverings in the period provides a more immediate referent.

  14. For a good summary of this history, see David Beers Quinn, The Elizabethans and the Irish (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1966), or Canny, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A Pattern Established 1565-76 (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976).

  15. The preamble to the Statutes of Kilkenny, excerpts reprinted in A. J. Otway-Ruthven, A History of Medieval Ireland (London: Ernest Benn; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), 291.

  16. For a suggestive account of the role of the Irish mantle in terms of gender dynamics, see Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, “Dismantling Irena: The Sexualizing of Ireland in Early Modern England” in Nationalisms & Sexualities, Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger, eds. (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 157-71. Neill also discusses the mantle as a site for English anxieties about the “inscrutable” Irish other (26).

  17. Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. W. L. Renwick (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 51.

  18. Spenser, 49.

  19. Spenser, 51.

  20. Jones and Stallybrass in Parker et al., eds., 166.

  21. In discussing the contradictory English attitudes toward the mantle, Jones and Stallybrass note that “a miscegenation of clothes returns to haunt the colonizer” when a military supplier in Ireland suggests to Elizabeth that she provide her English troops there with an Irish mantle (Jones and Stallybrass in Parker et al., eds., 168). Although the authors read the episode as a sign of fragile English cultural identity, to adopt the mantle might also be to incorporate the enemy's tricks.

  22. Spenser, 53.

  23. Sir John Davies, A Discovery of the Reasons Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued (1612), 182; quoted here from Jones and Stallybrass in Parker et al., eds., 163.

  24. See Quinn, 109ff.

  25. Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, 4 vols. (London, 1625), 4:1647 and 1655.

  26. John Smith, Works. 1608-1631, ed. Edward Arber (Birmingham: Privately Printed, 1884), 102; see also page 405.

  27. Although I cannot address it here, such colonial quoting was also used to characterize African peoples newly encountered in the period, comparing them to the Irish.

  28. Colonialism mediates English encounters with its several others, so that observation is never neutral or transparent. As Neill has shown, not only is ocular control essential to English domination in Ireland, but the construction of the Irish as different already brands them with a kind of guilt (26-27 and 6).

  29. For a discussion of such triangulation, see Canny, “The Ideology of English Colonization.”

  30. Davies to Salisbury, 8 November 1610, quoted here from Davies, Historical Tracts (Dublin, 1787), 273-86, esp. 283-84.

  31. See Canny, “The Ideology of English Colonization,” 593-94.

  32. The first translation of Bartolomé de las Casas's Breve historia de la destrucción de las Indias appeared in England under the title The Spanish Colonie (London, 1583). The English emulation of Spanish behavior is thus exactly contemporaneous with its condemnation. For an account of how this ambiguity played itself out in Ralegh's voyage to Guiana, see Louis Montrose, “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery” in New World Encounters, Stephen Greenblatt, ed. (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993), 177-217.

  33. Matthew Parker, Correspondence (1833), quoted here from Quinn, 26.

  34. This strategy for disarming criticism of colonialism has had a long life. Compare Joseph Conrad's evocation of a “primitive” London in Heart of Darkness (New York: Signet, 1978): after eulogizing the Thames as the artery of commerce and empire, Marlow says, “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth” and proceeds to evoke the Roman arrival in Britain (67).

  35. Sir Thomas Smith to Fitzwilliam, 8 November 1572; quoted here from Canny, Elizabethan Conquest, 588-89.

  36. See Canny, Elizabethan Conquest, 580 and 589.

  37. The English address the threatening incomprehensibility of the natives' language itself through the mechanisms of colonial quotation. The term hubbub, originally used to describe an Irish war cry or outcry, migrates to Virginia, where Henry Spelman hears the Indians making a “whoopubb” (Smith, cv). The OED itself incorporates the strategies of colonial quotation, defining hubbub as “a confused noise of a multitude shouting or yelling; esp. the confused shouting of a battle-cry or ‘hue and cry’ by wild or savage races” (7:459, my emphasis).

  38. Francis Bacon, The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon, 4th ed. (1868), and Fynes Moryson, An Itinerary (1617); both quoted here from Quinn, 121-22.

  39. See Ann Rosalind Jones, “Italians and Others: Venice and the Irish in Coryat's Crudities and The White Devil,” Renaissance Drama 18 (1987): 101-19.

  40. See, for example, Robert Wiltenburg, “The Aeneid in The Tempest,” Shakespeare Survey 39 (1987): 159-68; and John Pitcher, “A Theater of the Future: The Aeneid and The Tempest,” Essays in Criticism 34 (1984): 193-215. Orgel does mention Spain's repeated attempts to invade Tunis in the sixteenth century (40).

    It must be noted that the imperial name of Carthage itself travels far beyond the classical world. By the seventeenth century Cartagena was the name of both a city in Spain and a Spanish settlement in what is now Colombia. Orgel cites Richard Eden's mention of this West Indies harbor as “Carthago” in The Decades of the New World (London, 1555), a translation of Peter Martyr's De Orbe Novo.

  41. See especially Lynda E. Boose, “‘The Getting of a Lawful Race’: Racial discourse in early modern England and the unrepresentable black woman”; Jean E. Howard, “An English Lass Amid the Moors: Gender, race, sexuality, and national identity in Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West”; and Particia Parker, “Fantasies of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’: Africa, Othello, and bringing to light,” all in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 35-54, 101-17, and 84-100.

  42. Richard knolles, The Generall Historie of the Turkes, 2d ed. (London, 1610), A4v and A6v.

  43. Knolles, Aaaaaa6r.

  44. See, for example, Prospero's account of Sycorax (1.2.261-70) and the discussion of Claribel's marriage to the king of Tunis (2.1.68-84 and 244-58).

  45. For a concise summary of these events, see Chew, 551-55.

  46. For a detailed account of the history of Anglo-Moroccan relations, see Jack D’Amico, The Moor in English Renaissance Drama (Tampa: U of South Florida P, 1991), 7-40.

  47. Henry De Castries, Les Sources Inédités de L’Histoire du Maroc (1918); quoted here from D’Amico, 38.

  48. Howard in Hendricks and Parker, eds., 113.

  49. For the poem's publication history and an account of the battle as the background for Othello, see Emrys Jones, “‘Othello’, ‘Lepanto’ and the Cyprus Wars,” SS 21 (1968): 47-52.

  50. Knolles, A3r.

  51. “Lepanto” in The Poems of James VI of Scotland, ed. James Craigie, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1955), 1:198.

  52. Knolles, Bbbbbbr.

  53. Knolles, Bbbbbbr.

  54. See Fernand Braudel's encyclopedic The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Siân Reynolds, 2 vols. (London: Collins, 1973), 2:1186-95.

  55. Purchas, quoted here from Chew, 344.

  56. Boose in Hendricks and Parker, eds., 41.

  57. Knolles, 557.

  58. Orgel, ed., 2.1.245n.

  59. I allude to Montrose's discussion of Ralegh in Guiana (“The Work of Gender” in Greenblatt, ed.).

  60. In another variation on this theme, the natives' alleged sexual violence toward the Europeans' intended land was sometimes offered as a colonialist justification, as in Purchas's description of the vulnerable Virginia: “… howsoeuer like a modest Virgin she is now vailed with wild Couerts and shadie Woods, expecting rather rauishment then Mariage from her Natiue Sauages …” (4:1818).

I would like to thank Stephen Orgel and Patricia Parker for their kind suggestions for this essay.

Further Reading

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Callaghan, Dympna. “What's at Stake in Representing Race?” Shakespeare Studies XXVI (1998): 21–26.

Examines the representation of non-white characters in modern productions of Shakespeare's plays.

Erickson, Peter. “The Moment of Race in Renaissance Studies.” Shakespeare Studies XXVI (1998): 27-36.

Considers the pitfalls of scholarly investigation into race in Renaissance studies. Erickson uses Othelloamong his examples, arguing that while “the drama begins by disrupting and temporarily suspending racially based stereotypes, it ends by reimposing them.”

Hamlin, William M. “Men of Inde: Renaissance Ethnography and The Tempest.Shakespeare Studies XXII (1994): 15-44.

Views The Tempest in the contexts of Renaissance colonial discourse, regarding Caliban as a culturally distinct and ambivalent figure.

López, Judith A. “‘Black and White and “Read” All Over.’” Shakespeare Studies XXVI (1998): 49-58.

Disputes the critical tendency to reduce racial and religious conflict to binary opposition when evaluating such texts as The Merchant of Venice.

Smith, Ian. “Barbarian Errors: Performing Race in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, No. 2 (Summer 1998): 168-86.

Explores the racializing function of language—which seeks to define through speech the cultural outsider—in relation to Shakespeare's Othello.


Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Shakespeare's Works


Racial Discourse: Black and White